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Archive for February, 2012

Gender Issues and Science Toys

Science and gender, it is an issue that comes up quite often. Complaints are often made that we don’t do enough to get girls interested in science, and that once they become scientists (or engineers) they face a host of issues their male compatriots do not have to deal with. The latter is beyond the scope of this blog, but the former issue is one that concerns us quite frequently.

Now, from purely anecdotal evidence of ‘who comes into the store’ we can certainly say as far as our visitors are concerned there doesn’t seem to be any disparity in the genders. We get as many girls as boys and if anything the girls seem more focused. However, this example merely covers children who come into the store which makes it in effect a self-selecting survey.

Outside of the store, gender bias in science enthusiasm is much more of a problem. Things have been worse in the past – times were that you would hard pressed to find any girls on the box covers of science toys at all or in the advertising.  Mind you, most products these days solved the problem by not having any kids on the box cover, this has the advantage of being cheaper to photograph (no child models means no model fees) and doesn’t limit the product to just kids or a certain age of kids.

That being said, some products need models and when they are used some old sexist habits tend to crop up. Have a look at this example:

OK, so here we have a boy and girl demonstrating a popular product we actually carry. (Fun Fly Stick) Note that this image is what appears on the box. While it is good that there is a girl in the shot, you might notice she is not using the product, but merely being amazed by it as the boy plays with it. This is something of a half-step up from the past where there would have been no girl at all.

Now, it might be that this shot was simply better than ones where the girl was using the stick, and its probable that the boy couldn’t affect a look of amazement in the same way she did. But still this sort of thing starts to be accumulative. The shot was enough of an issue that on our store we used a different shot from the manufacturer. This shot was less staged and, while we didn’t choose it because of this, has a girl using the stick.



Things actually can get worse when too much effort is put into trying to get girls into science. The problem that happens most often is that science toy makers seem to think that girls actually need to be fooled into playing with science toys. So they change chemistry kits into kits where kids make their own perfume , make-up and bath balls – which on its own isn’t a bad thing, but then they change the names so that they have as little to do with science and chemistry as possible and then they dress up the box in a very heavy pink color.

Probably one of the worst offenders in this field is the Australian company Wild Science, which has already taken some flak for doing these things. A recent visit to the New York Toy Fair showed that this isn’t likely to change very much:

To their ‘credit’ some things have changed slightly, there is now a “beautiful slime” kit in a predictably pink box.

Frustratingly, Wild Science kits are very good. Before they became so gender oriented Spectrum Scientifics did carry some of their line. Sadly inventory problems and slow sales led to us dropping the line.

What concerns us is that other science toy makers seem to be following down this path.  Be Amazing Toys has in the past had an excellent record of showing girls using their products as a cursory glimpse of their website shows (4 models using products, 3 are girls) but even they have started to do the make kits “aimed” at girls in the same manner as Wild Science. Future kits include : Bling My Ring, Fizzing Bath Ball, and Growing Gems. All of these kits could be good on their own but have a look at the box art:

These kits are not as bad as at least they have colors besides pink. But the copy, title and box art seem designed to fool girls into science, not to catch their interest.

So what is to be done? A few ideas:

1) Change packaging so that its not just boys playing with the toys.

2) Its OK to orient science toy packaging towards girls, but not to the extent that you are trying to hide the fact that it is a science kit. Be proud of what is going on in your kit!

3) You can aim at gender preferred science a little bit, but again do not overdo it. In general girls prefer biology and chemistry, boys prefer engineering & physics. But that is in GENERAL. Do not exclude one gender with your packaging and copy based on that generality!

4) If you must make products aimed at one gender or another, at least give both genders something interesting. Three different variations on making perfume or growing slabs shaped like hearts just isn’t interesting.

5) Do some market research with actual female scientists and figure out what would have gotten their attention as a child. They probably won’t say ‘pink packaging with smiling cartoon blond girls with pigtails holding a magic wand’.

6) While the info in #5 is crucial, remember that as children these scientists might well have played with science toys no matter how much they were not aimed at them. Make sure you are going to make your kits friendly to both genders.

7) Stop trying to fool girls into trying science. Make it so they want to do the science experiments, not that they need to be tricked into doing it.

These just scratch the surface, and in truth is nowhere near a solution by any means. But sometimes the first step to fixing a problem is to stop making the mistakes that are causing it in the first place.

Science toys and the like have come a long way, sitting next to the computer I type on is a very informative and useful book about astronomy and telescopes. But it is a product of its age (1960’s) and while it is full of illustrations, every single one with a human being is male (and a white male to boot!).  In the store when we sell frog kits (which definitely grasp children’s attention for both genders) we point out to parents & grandparents who wonder at girls who are interested in the frogs that the age of Dennis the Menace grossing out Margaret with a frog he found is long gone, and that these days Margaret  would probably snatch it from his hands and yell at him “you’re holding it wrong!”

But we still have a loooooong way to go.




Last Night for the Jupiter, Moon & Venus Dance!

For the past two nights, Venus, The Moon and Jupiter have been appearing very close together in the night sky, appearing around sunset and making quite a spectacle of themselves. This evening (February 27th, 2012), they will continue with their triple-conjuction. Afterwards the natural drift of three objects with very different orbits will end this conjunction. In other words, the Moon goes away. Venus & Jupiter will continue to appear together just after sunset through much of March.

These stellar objects will appear in the West-Southwest sky just after sunset, with the Moon. These planets will be visible even in the most light-polluted of skies as long as you have a relatively unobstructed view to the West-Southwest. Take advantage!


Digital Night Vision Monoculars from Night Owl Optics

Night Vision optics are a lot of fun. Getting to see into a unlit yard or in a dark room can be a great experience and in some cases a lifesaver. But Night vision optics are tricky things – they often employ very sensitive optical plates and chargers that are needed for the night vision to work. What these chargers do is emit several particles for every particle of light that hits it. This is fine, but the device can be overwhelmed and burned out very easily. Keeping the lens caps on the  night vision optics during the daytime is crucial as the let of a normally lit room can actually damage the night vision optical parts.

One solution is to use a digital night vision system. We have sold these sorts of things before and they a decent job. Digital night vision has the same results as regular night vision but the method used is similar to taking a Photoshop image and cranking up the ‘brightness’ category – it is much more complicated than that, of course, but it  gives you the basic idea behind it. In any case Digital Night Vision does not have the fragility to bright lights that standard night vision may have.

Night Owl Optics has produced two new Digital Night Vision monoculars for customers. They are more durable (for the reasons listed above) and lower cost than standard night vision, and may have a longer lifetime than standard Night Vision. The only drawback is that you are looking at a screen of the image (much like the screen on a digital camera) through the optical eyepiece and not just the image via the optics. Most folks are willing to forgo this for the durability and lower cost.

The first model is the Night Owl XGEN Digital Viewer

With a 2.1x magnification, a 20mm lens diameter, and a price tag of just $149.00  this is a very nice entree into night vision equipment. One further feature is that Digital Night Vision only needs standard alkaline batteries, not the special lithium batteries of the power-hungry standard Night Vision.

The “step-up” from the XGEN is the XGENPro Digital Night Vision Monocular:

The XGENPro has 3-6x variable magnification, a 37mm aperture and a range of up to 200 feet. The cost for the XGENPro is just $189!

Both models employ built-in infrared illuminators, just like standard Night Vision equipment and weigh less than a pound each (without batteries).



Painless Learning Educational Placemats!

We’ve got a new line of products here at Spectrum – and its a product for the dinner table! We’ve added several products from the Painless Learning placemats. These are 17-1/2″ x 12″ heavily laminated placemats with detailed color fronts that give information on a wide variety of science & math subjects, the backs of the placemats are in black-and-white and can either be colored with dry erase markers or have a short quiz to see what kids using the placemats have learned!The placemats are economical at just $3.99 so you can buy a bunch and rotate them over a couple of weeks!

We have a lot of these placemats, so here is just a small sampling:

USA Map Placemat


Be sure to check out the World Map Placemat as well.

There’s the Solar System Placemat:


There is also the Stars & Constellations Placemat as well


For more on some basic learning there is a Multiplication Tables Placemat.


Be sure to also check out the Sign Language Placemat, Learning About Money Placemat, and Time to Tell Time Placemat.

For more science orientations there is the Periodic Table of Elements Placemat:


Science placemats also include the Weather Placemat, Human Body Placemat as well as this Rocks & Minerals Placemat:


We also have a Dinosaur Placemat (natch).

In all there are 15 different placemats to choose from! be sure to pick up some for your next meal!


Happy President’s Day and an anniversary of a Space Milestone

Its President’s Day, but it is perhaps more important to note that today is the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight on the Freedom 7!

John Glenn was not the first person in space, but he was the first American in space, and while the USSR was racking up a lot of ‘firsts’ in the Space Race but the the Mercury program  was actually much more effective research and testing for space exploration in the long run.

That’s all for today. Its kinda busy here!


Iron Pyrite Suns

Iron Pyrite, or Iron Sulfide is a fairly common mineral that is more commonly known as Fool’s Gold due to its golden luster. Its crystalline structure is a dead give-away that it is not actually gold, although in many cases it can be more attractive than gold. Typically, Iron Pyrite is found in chunks made up on hundreds or thousands of tiny square crystals:



But a rare formation of Iron Pyrite is the Sun. This is where a flat disc is formed by the crystals, with the smaller crystals forming the interior and larger crystals forming at the rim.This forms an interesting pattern that actually resembles a sun:


Spectrum Scientifics now has these rare Iron Pyrite suns in three different sizes: Small (1″), Medium (1-1/2″) and Large (2″). These are low-cost, Grade B Iron Pyrite suns. They will have defects like cracks and other flaws, but the overall structure will be a sun. Consider these an excellent addition for collectors!


New Metal Marvel Building Toys!

We’ve had great success with the Metal Marvels. These are simple kits where you punch out metal pieces, bend them into shape and assemble. The kits are laser-cut and usually can be assembled in about 30-45 minutes. These were good for us so we added a few new models to our line!

First up is the Space Shuttle Metal Marvel. The shuttle may be retired, but it still makes for an excellent model!


Buildings were very popular so we also figured some of the European structures would do well. That is why we know have the Eiffel Tower Metal Marvel.

Across the channel, we have London’s Big Ben Clock Tower.

All Metal Marvel models are 3-4″ tall (or long for ones like the Shuttle) and are for ages 13+. They arrive flat on laser-punched cards so they can fit in an envelope or card.



Our Hemocytometer is probably one of the most popular ‘industrial’ products that we carry.  It is well built, decently priced, and very effective for what it does.

A hemocytometer is designed to be used with a microscope to count blood cells.  The critical part of any Hemocytometer is a thick slide with a rectangular indentation with an etched grid (usually laser etched in this day and age).

The better designed slides use a grid pattern known as a Improved Neubauer. The grid has several areas of known size marked of, so that if one counts the blood cells in that grid one can get an accurate figure of how many cells are in the sample.This overall area is known as the counting chamber.

Many “Hemocytometers” are sold without any crucial accessories – one of  the most important is a Hemocytometer cover slip (shown above). This is important as the cover slip is much thicker than typical microscope cover slips. The slip cover must be placed over the counting chamber before adding the sample. The sample is then added to the edge of the cover slip and capillary action draws in the fluid . The counting chamber is then filled properly and counting can be done under a microscope. After that it is just math.

Part of the kit includes a syringe that is used to introduce the sample to the edge of the of cover slip once it is in place.

( No, we didn’t take it out of the packaging, that thing is sharp!)

Very often samples need to be diluted before counting can take place, and while not ultra-critical our kit comes with two important dilution pipets. One for red blood cells, one for white blood cells.

Naturally, they are color coded for your convenience!

Since bloodwork can be dangerous, we advise always wearing rubber gloves and cleaning hemocytometer gear completely and carefully.

Spectrum Scientific’s Hemocytometer Kit sells for $47.95 and while it lacks some of the advanced features of much more expensive sets (such as anti-reflective coatings on the counting chamber) we cannot say that prices of $200+ are worth such features.  This is also a complete kit – not just a glass slide that other companies may offer.  Be sure of your needs when ordering!


Matryoshka Madness! Funky Russian Nesting Dolls

Matryoshka are probably better known in the USA as Russian nesting dolls – a simple concept where a large doll holds a slightly smaller doll, which in turn holds a slight smaller doll inside it, and so on until the smallest dolls. The original Matryoshka were painted up in family themes.

But the concept could do soooo much more that that! That’s why we carry these modern nesting dolls – Matryoshka Madness! Instead of a family we have robots!

First up is a set of futuristic-style sci-fi robot nesting dolls. The largest of these robots is 4-1/2″ tall while the smallest is 1-3/8″.

There is also this cool set of Eco-Warning Matryoshka

These are great gifts or fun fidget toys for the desk or coffee table. Pick up a set today!


The Orrery and other Solar System Simulators

An Orrery is a mechanical simulation model of the motion of the planets in our solar system. An Orrery demonstrates how the planets move in orbit around the sun in relative motion to the other planets. So in  a properly designed Orrery if the Earth model goes around the sun 30 times then Saturn will have circle the Sun just once. More advanced Orreries will even have the various planets rotate with an appropriate period, and very advanced models may have moons which in turn orbit the planets with the proper period.

Orreries were the ultimate in mechanical devices in Astronomy. Universities would spend fortunes to build them in varying sizes and features. They could be as small as a desktop model, to as large as a closet. Today there are some Orreries in museums that take up entire rooms! Many older models are still around, albeit not operational and they show how our knowledge of the Solar System has changed – older models may not have all or even most of Jupiter’s moons, Mar’s two moons are often depicted as perfect spheres, and so on. The most amusing are the older models built before the discovery of Pluto – they were naturally built without that dwarf planet, and this absence was noted for many decades – until Pluto was demoted from planetary status and the old Orreries became accurate once more!

Orreries are almost never perfectly to scale – they are meant to show orbital periods, not accurate distances from the sun. The planets are often oversized as well, but that is necessary for the visual presentation.

These days, few large Orreries are built outside of museum entrance halls. Computer simulations on screens cover most of the mathematical needs, but very often students of Astronomy may need a decent physical demonstration of plnaetary rotation. Fortunately, there are some Orreries still being manufactured! Not just Orreries, but several kinds of solar system simulations!

First up we have a classic powered Orrery. This is a simple model showing just the Major planets – no moons, no dwarf planets, but it does use a classic gear driven system to work out the proper planetary periods! The model moves quietly  and includes a Teacher’s guide with 10 lesson plans! This model is perfect for classroom or home schooling for ages 8-14 (grades 3-9).

For a more economical model, we also have the Solar System Simulator. This model does not operate on gears, instead the planets are adjusted using the dates printed on the base. The planets are moved to show their position around the sun.

No Astronomy class plan would be complete without demonstrations to show how the Earth and Moon move around the Sun. For that we have the Earth-Moon Orbiter Simulator

This simulator is manually gear driven and can be used to show the various aspects of the Moon revolving around the Earth and the Earth in turn revolving around the sun!  Daylight, night, seasons and phases of the moon are all demonstrated with this model. But perhaps you want to show a bit more? For that we also have an Illuminated Earth-Moon Orbiter Simulator

With this simulator you cover the same topics as the non-illuminated model, but with a much more effective visual aid as with an actual illuminating ‘sun’ give the effect of what light from the sun actualy does!

These models are excellent for the classroom or for pooled equipment among home-schoolers.