Any chemist worth her lab coat has a good story of singed eyebrows.
“So my brother was two years younger, he was also a bit of a science nerd, and we read things in Boys’ Life and various magazines that would describe experiments, and then we’d try to repeat them,” recalls Michelle Francl, a professor at Bryn Mawr College.
“And one of the things we really wanted to do was separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.”
So Francl and her brother set up an experiment in their homemade lab–the downstairs bathroom–passing an electric current through the water, then capturing the hydrogen gas in a test tube.
To see if it worked, they stuck a burning ember into the tube.
“It tested positive, and explosively positive, and there was kind of this big whoosh of flame, and my brothers’ eyebrows and his little crew cut got singed,” she says.
The budding scientists cleaned up their mess, and slunk back upstairs.
“I lived in fear that my mother would notice the singed eyebrows, but with six kids, as long as no one was bleeding, apparently, she didn’t notice.”
Like lots of scientists, Francl credits those early mishaps with developing her sense of curiosity and persistence, two key traits for a career in the STEM fields. But with the decline in popularity of chemistry sets and other laboratory-like activities for kids, she’s seeing less and less scientific moxie in her undergrads.
“I think students are coming [in] far too cautious, and far less willing to stick their hands in something and see what happens,” says Francl.
Peak chemistry set
There are no statistics on when it sold best, but most people agree the years before and after World War II were perhaps peak chemistry set. This was also a time when American scientific achievements were widely celebrated. The space race, companies like Dow and DuPont leading the charge. Better living through chemistry, right?
But by the 1960s and 70s, the decline in popularity of the chemistry set coincided with America’s waning passion for science, rising concern about toxic substances, and better entertainment options for children.
In a way, that gives anyone trying to build a 21st century chemistry set the benefit of a clean slate: they can appeal to a whole new generation, who perhaps hasn’t ever seen one, and use technology to draw them in.
“So we have some cool stuff, like for example…we provide you a virtual reality headset,” says Vassili Philippov, a Russian mathematician turned educational-toy-entrepreneur. He’s showing off the newly launched MEL Chemistry set, which along with the headset includes more traditional components, like beakers, safety glasses, and syringes.
The MEL Chemistry Set works off of a subscription model. Each month, three new experiments arrive in the mail containing small vials of chemicals like ammonium chloride and zinc powder, neatly packaged and labeled, with detailed instructions.
An app guides users through the experiments, explaining what’s happening on a molecular level.
“Every time you do some experiment, at the same time you see what is happening inside. And so, it’s not just magic tricks, you understand the science behind it,” says Philippov.
The set also includes a little plastic lens that clips onto a smartphone camera, zooming in to reveal stunning chemical reactions. The images and videos are what any kid would want to post on Facebook or Twitter.
“Because if you have done something cool, you want to share it, it is natural,” he says.
Philippov’s parents encouraged him to play with chemistry sets when he was young, and now he does the same with his four children.
“It is…very important for how we spend time. It is a signal, and if you spend half an hour, it could change their life. That’s why we like it, because we can change the lives of our kids.”
Open it and go
But today, a lot of people would argue the answer to a better life–and a better career–isn’t contained in the periodic table. Instead, it’s typed out in algorithms and code.
“I think we are in a moment in which we do see the hands on experience that is important is one that is in front of a computer,” says Erin McLeary, museum director at Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Foundation, which houses a huge collection of chemistry sets.
She does push back on the idea that these educational toys have lost their standing, though. A well-designed set coupled with the right technology is still going to draw kids in.
“They’re like a dollhouse but for science,” she says. “Dollhouses are extremely appealing to many people as sort of visual artifacts. They’re like everything, but it is so tiny and precise and it is perfect and it is in miniature, and it takes you into this imaginative place.”
Chemistry sets still offer the same transformative effect, a tiny workshop with everything you need. “You can just open it and go.”
And as for what can go wrong, Professor Michelle Francl says parents shouldn’t worry about the small chance for explosions or lost eyebrows.
“We accept risk in a lot of places–baseball, sports–kids hurt themselves playing those things, yet we don’t think that that’s a bad idea for them to be doing, and so I think we have to accept a little bit of risk when they play with science,” says Francl.