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This Programmable Chemistry Set Looks Like An Old Music Box

The kit recently took first place in a contest that aims to put the fun and inspiration back into learning science.

Chemistry sets today aren’t what they once were. With the old ones, you could mix dangerous chemicals together and explode things right on mom’s kitchen table. Now, kids aren’t so lucky. The explosive stuff has mostly gone, and the experiments aren’t so interesting, or inspirational.

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Which is why the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public thought about how they could create a new type of science kit–something that might inspire the kids of today the way the old sets inspired kids back then. The two groups created a competition, and the winners have just been announced.


In first place comes a project from Manu Prakash, a bioengineer from Stanford University, and his graduate student George Korir. The kit is based around a hand-cranked music box, and it’s both fun and a potentially useful innovation for the developing world. On top of the box, the scientists placed a “microfluidic” chip containing tiny channels of chemicals. When you crank a punch card through the box, it releases fluids according to the code, making new substances on the fly.

Prakash and Korir first developed the “lab on a chip” device for cheap diagnostics and other in-the-field applications. For example, you could mix a small water sample with a detection agent to test for contamination. Or, you might mix chemicals to create an an antidote for a snake bite. Importantly, the device is mechanical and doesn’t need power. And, it’s very cheap–about $5, according to the researchers.

The educational version, if fully developed, might come with several cards, says Prakash, so kids could understand the reaction of different chemicals. See more in the Stanford video here:

There were plenty of other takes on the theme. In second place was a toy set developed by Robijanto Soetedjo, a neurophysiologist with the University of Washington. It explains bio-electricity. Kids can attach electrodes to parts of their body, say their forearm. Then, as they move the limb, it sets off a reaction somewhere else–say, lighting a nearby bulb or turning a propeller. The device can also be linked to a computer. See a demonstration here:

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Finally, in third place, was the Sensay Sensor System, from Tumblehome Learning, a Massachusetts startup. It’s a modular platform that stacks sensors units to record environmental data and share it with a community. “They can analyze, upload and collaborate on experiments with other learners,” says Penny Noyce, a co-founder, in the video here.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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