On retail shelves this holiday season are three toys based on ideas
culled from teacher's guides developed at the combination science museum
and education think tank at UC Berkeley.
One of them, a fizzy chemistry kit called Soda Pop Science, has won
one of Family Fun magazine's coveted "Toy of the Year" awards - what
some have termed the Oscars of the toy industry - plus one of only
two dozen top Oppenheim Platinum Awards for best toy of 2002 from a
group that calls itself "the only independent guide to the best toys,
books, videos, audio and software for kids."
In its review, Family Fun said, "Our testers loved creating fizzy,
flavorful sodas. Even when experiments went awry, producing
the worst-tasting sodas since New Coke, they would drink
them down just for the gross-out factor."
The kits were developed by Great Explorations in Math and Science,
or GEMS, at the Lawrence Hall of Science and Scientific Explorer, Inc.,
a Seattle toy company.
"These awards are the best in the industry, because they have independent
testers, and you don't pay to submit products," said Susan Rives, co-owner
and marketing director of Scientific Explorer.
Soda Pop Science received the "Toy of the Year" award in the learning
toy category - one of about 80 awards given out this season by the
magazine from a field of 1,000s of toys now in stores. More than 500
kids and teachers evaluated the toys.
The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio's platinum Best Toy Award was in the
science/craft kits category, and is one of only 20-25 platinum awards
given out each year. Many parents recognize the platinum, gold and
silver Best Toy Award medallions pasted on the package as a sign of
What the GEMS project at LHS brings to the toy market is easy-to-follow,
step-by-step instructions that have been kid-tested and shown to increase
the fun as well as understanding of the scientific principles behind
it all. Soda Pop Science, for example, comes with a manual of suggested
experiments that involve collection of data and "market surveys" of
friends and family, plus an explanation of the chemistry involved and
information for further inquiry.
"With Soda Pop Science, the kids really enjoyed the process," said
Joanne Oppenheim, coauthor of the annual book, The Oppenheim Toy Porfolio.
"They had to learn to keep a log of their experiments and how they
taste, they had to read and follow directions. It's a good combination
of hands-on science with a tasty result. With many similar kits, you
very often end up with something that smells bad and taste's terrible."
The kit also appealed equally to boys and girls, she said.
The other kits are Mystery Detective and Messages from Space. All
kits are aimed at ages six to adult, and cost $19.95.
GEMS has developed and distributes more than 70 teacher's guides
and handbooks to schools throughout the country and in several foreign
countries, including Turkey, Singapore and the Philippines. Aimed at
preschool through eighth grade, the guides emphasize activities that
engage students in inquiry-based experiences and experiments that teach
science and math concepts more effectively.
With growing evidence that science learning takes place at home as
well as in school, GEMS decided to move into the home market, and last
year sought a partnership with a toy company to develop commercial
toys based on the teacher's guides.
"Many of us are parents, and we see a real dearth of quality toys
on the market," said Jacquey Barber, GEMS director. "Then it occurred
to us that we are sitting on this great product that is easily adapted
to the home market."
GEMS signed a 4-5 year agreement with Scientific Explorer this year
to co-develop between 10 and 15 products, a deal similar to one the
toy company has with the Smithsonian Institution.
"Until now we have produced educational material for the classroom
audience. To have these kits now that are distributed to kids at home,
to do with their family, has been exciting," said Kimi Hosoume, an
associate director of GEMS.
The Soda Pop Science kit contains everything needed to make fizzy
soda except the sugar and food coloring. Included are lime, cherry,
cinnamon and vanilla flavorings, baking soda and citric acid, recipes
and a measuring scoop, plus lab and instruction sheets.
Mystery Detective includes fingerprint and DNA identification materials,
and employs paper chromatography and other tests to help solve crimes.
Messages from Space brings kids into the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence, and includes a telescope and a CD with recorded space
With the scientific rigor and educational expertise characteristic
of GEMS and the Lawrence Hall of Science, the GEMS crew tested the
at-home kits with more than two dozen families and used the feedback
to refine them. Scientific Explorer conducted pilot tests in Seattle
"It's amazing that a lot of toys get no testing," Barber said, mentioning
her own experience with one of the season's hot toys. A simple "wizards"
experiment, for example, didn't work.
All the attention to detail seems to have paid off. The kits have
landed in nearly all the major toy catalogs and many independent stores,
and were picked up recently for distribution through Discovery Channel
Stores. In addition, the awards for Soda Pop Science are drawing the
attention of parents.
"Because of the Family Fun and Oppenheim awards, we have noticed
an up-tick in customers looking for Soda Pop Science," Rives said.
"It is really selling well and we get lots of feedback. A lot of parents
are looking for toys that are creative, that offer fun but also have
something more important, which is learning attached to it, and that
is what we try to do."
For information on purchasing the kit, contact Scientific Explorer,
Inc., at (800) 900-1182 or (206) 322-7611. For more information about
GEMS, visit the GEMS Web site at http://www.lhsgems.org.