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Reimagining the chemistry set for the 21st century

(Photo by Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Graduate School of Education)
(Photo by Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Graduate School of Education)
Janet Coffey
Janet Coffey

Reimagining the chemistry set for the 21st century

Janet Coffey ’92, PhD ’03, program officer at the Moore Foundation, recently spoke about a novel science prize competition it has organized.

The following was originally published as a post on the White House blog by members of the Office of Science and Technology.

Inspiration and preparation are critical themes at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s ambitious national science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education agenda. The Administration has made it a priority to ensure that all young people are prepared with a strong foundation in STEM that they can use in both their professional and personal lives.  In addition, the Administration is committed to supporting work that inspires young people to pursue STEM throughout their coursework and careers.  

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has championed the use of prize competitions to source new ideas from citizen solvers and spur innovation on issues such as STEM education and beyond.  In order to find new ways to engage young people in STEM-related activities, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation recently partnered with the Society for Science & the Public on the SPARK (Science Play and Research Kit) Competition, a national prize competition to solicit ideas that reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st century.

We had the chance to speak with Janet Coffey, Program Officer at the Moore Foundation, recently about the Spark Competition. [Coffey received her doctorate from Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2003 and her undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1992.] Here is a transcript of the conversation:

What inspired you and Society for Science & the Public to run this competition?

The “chemistry set” is really a metaphor for playful, self-guided discovery, like that offered to an earlier generation by the classic chemistry set. Decades ago, these kits facilitated children’s curiosity and exploration, dared them to ask and pursue their own questions, and captured their imaginations through the joy of science.  Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and our foundation, attributes his pursuit of a career in science and technology to his childhood chemistry set. He’s not alone. Scientists and science enthusiasts over a certain age often credit their childhood use of chemistry sets as the initial “spark” that helped fuel lifelong engagement with science.

Now, the exciting chemicals in classic chemistry sets are illegal. And many of the other open-ended ways that children from past generations learned to explore the world are harder to come by.

In this competition, we wanted to address this gap. We were looking for new ideas to get children “hooked” on science, so we wanted ideas that took advantage of children’s propensity to play and ask questions, allowed them to tinker, puzzle, and revel in the messiness of exploration and discovery – not unlike what the classic chemistry set once did, and not unlike what real scientists do. 

Running a competition allowed us to cast a wide net, to reach individuals and communities who may not be on our radar screen, and to source novel ideas. 

What ideas rose to the top?

We received some fantastic entries! For example:

  • An inexpensive hand-held, programmable chemistry set [by Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash] inspired by a music box that makes fully accessible “microfluidics”, a technology that relies on microchips containing miniature pipes, valves, and pumps to carry out a wide variety of chemistry or biology experiments;
  • A bioelectricity toy that extends the more typical electric circuits to include use of the body’s electrical currents to turn on bulbs and fans, opening up the world of neuroscience to kids and adults alike;
  • A toy with embedded sensors that captures data from the physical world to make streams of information all around us more visible and can extend to online communities who are using data to consider real-world problems like building more sustainable communities; and
  • A “maker” kit that uses crafts as the vehicle for engaging children, particularly girls and youth from underrepresented communities, with electric circuits and Arduino programming. 

This variety of ideas demonstrates the multitude of entry points to science available for children.  The diverse backgrounds of the entrants – scientists and engineers, makers, college students, teachers, museum exhibit designers, and parents – speaks to the breadth of creative energy that exists out there, just waiting to be tapped.

How do these new ideas and designs help fill that gap in tools to engage kids in science?

All of these prototypes are examples of tools that can help engage children in their own exploration and discovery. In school, science often becomes more about learning facts that others have already discovered than about one’s own questions and exploration of the world. Learning what scientists already know is important, but so is learning to ask our own questions and knowing we can figure things out. To quote Manu Prakash, the competition’s first place winner: “If you tell people, here are five things you can do and here are the answers you should get, you’ve lost them already. If you show them how much is not known, then they’ll get hooked.”

What are your hopes for what comes next?

We look forward to supporting the winning entrants and joining others who are committed to designing new ways to engage children in STEM-related activities. 

We recognize that children have an inherent curiosity about how the world works. This curiosity is an incredibly rich resource for motivating creativity and persistence in science if we take advantage of it. More than anything, we hope to feed that curiosity. The natural world certainly presents opportunities to ask questions and explore, but sometimes tools and toys can help get children (and adults) started!

Kumar Garg is Assistant Director for Learning and Innovation and Cristin Dorgelo is Assistant Director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology.

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