Getting hooked on science could begin with the ” right” gift

December 8, 1995

ANN ARBOR—From a set of lenses to an erector set or a magazine subscription, University of Michigan scientists recommend a variety of holiday gifts that could get a youngster ” hooked” on science.

Whether it’s lenses or magnets, Richard Teske, U-M professor emeritus of astronomy, recommends a batch of either or both. “Just give the children a collection of lenses and a little instruction and let them play,” Teske says, adding, “just plain lenses, not mounted in anything” lenses that can be thrown into a child’s toy box or drawer until wanted again. They work dirty or clean, and don’t break easily.”

Such lenses and an assortment of magnets can be obtained from hobby shops and hobby mail-order outlets at nominal costs. School science teachers have catalogs available from which lenses and magnets can be ordered. “The magnets won’t teach the basic scientific principles of electromagnetism,” Teske says, “but will enthuse kids who like to use their hands in imaginative experimentation.”

Stuart Cohen, assistant research scientist in the College of Engineering’s Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, suggests a program called “Gizmos & Gadgets” for an elementary school youngster with some computer skill. “This is an excellent non-violent, science-oriented, sequential task game,” says Cohen. “The idea is to construct the near-optimum plane, car or energy source using scientific principles while solving science puzzles.” The program does require a sound card and a video card.

“One of the gifts I got as a kid was the 150-in-1 circuit kit from Radio Shack,” says Sven Bilen, a graduate student in the U-M’s Space Physics Research Laboratory. “It was really neat to learn how to read a circuit diagram and make all kinds of circuits. I think this is one of the things that steered me to electrical engineering.”

This type of kit comes in a number of varieties, any one of which Bilen recommends for kids of all ages already interested in electricity or someone curious about how a radio works, or how to make an amplifier or metal detector.

Brian Coppola, U-M chemistry instructor, suggests “awakening an interest in things scientific and intellectual” by giving trips to science and technology museums and hands-on centers, as well as trips to university or college science classes and labs. He also suggests books such as P.M. Isaacson’s “Round Buildings, Square Buildings, and Buildings that Wiggle Like Fish,” “The Klutz Book of Magnetism” by Doherty and Cassidy, Rowen’s book “Some Body!” and “Re-Zoom” by I. Banyai. Of the many CD-ROMs available, Coppola suggests “The Way Things Work” by D. Macauley and “Science Sleuths.”

Nancy Houk, research scientist in the Department of Astronomy, suggests H.A. Ray’s book, “The Stars: A New Way to See Them.” Houk says the book features unusually clear and graphic pictures of the constellations which make them easy to remember. The book also contains a lot of general astronomical information.

“The book came out originally back in the mid-’50s,” Houk says, “and was responsible for my early interest in astronomy. Several editions have appeared since, and it is in paperback as well as hard cover. The author also wrote the classic ‘Curious George’ series.” Houk says this book is a ” real winner.”

Magazines such as “Earth and Space” and National Geographic’s “World” are suggested by Henry Pollack, U-M professor of geological sciences.

Alfred Hero, U-M associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, suggests a visit to the local library for a look at the Edmund Scientific Catalog. “There are many science oriented items which are inexpensive and illustrate an important physical concept or two,” he says.

U-M’s President James Duderstadt says he was always partial to erector sets after he passed the Tinker Toy stage and before he began to get interested in rocket fuel chemistry.

As a youngster, Bill Kauffman, U-M professor of aerospace engineering, was attracted to science by a Lionel train, access to his father’s machine shop, airplane model kits, a subscription to Scientific American and summer employment on his grandfather’s farm.

Time. That was the best gift Stacy Bike, U-M assistant professor of chemical engineering, received from her parents. “They were always interested and actively involved in my school work,” she says. “In addition, my father was a plant manager at a polymers facility. He would take me out there on weekends, explain the different polymers and describe how they were used. He even had me ‘shadow’ an engineer for a day when I was in high school.”

Bike lived in a small town without many educational activities, so these experiences replaced trips to museums, science centers, and special university programs.

“Now, as I watch my daughter grow, I’ve come to realize that she usually neglects material gifts after a short time and instead enjoys using her imagination in activities that we can help direct.”

Whether you buy it, order it, visit it, or talk about it, objects or subjects that spark a child’s imagination can turn out to be the gift that ” hooked” him or her on science.


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