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See Inside December 2010

Dear Santa: Please Send Owl Puke

SA asked scientists to recommend their favorite educational gifts for kids



Photograph by James Worrell

1. Geomag magnetic building set From $11 at reevesintl.com; ages 3 and up. William Shih of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering suggests discussing with kids what makes some structures (such as a cube) less stable than others (a tetrahedron).

2. Galileoscope $30 at galileoscope.org; all ages. Cameron Hummels, a Ph.D. candidate in astronomy at Columbia University and head of outreach for the department, says that these are by far the best-quality telescopes for the price. “Because they’re so inexpensive, they don’t come with a tripod, so I’d recommend getting a cheap camera tripod—the taller the better. Also, download some free sky-visualization software for identifying astronomical targets” (www.stellarium.org).

3. Snap Circuits From $31.95 at elenco.com; ages 8 and up. Chris Gerdes, a Stanford University mechanical engineer, says: “Snap Circuits have been hugely popular in my house. These are snap-together circuits on pieces that resemble electrical schematics. Kids read the schematic, build a circuit that looks exactly like it, and make something cool like an alarm, a variable-speed motor drive or a sci-fi sound-effect generator.”

4. Unreal Upchuck pellets $14.48 at fatbraintoys.com; ages 8 and up. Owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate the bones, fur and feathers. Owl pellet kits let kids dissect an owl’s puke—er, leftovers—and reconstruct the animal skeletons inside. Some, like Unreal Upchuck, use synthetic pellets; others use real ones that have been heat-sterilized. Says Kent Kirshenbaum, a professor of chemistry at New York University: “Biology can be a bit icky. I think that is part of what makes it exciting!”

5. Biology: Life As We Know It!, The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! and other Simon Basher books in this series from Kingfisher (Kingfisher and Scientific American are part of Macmillan Publishers). $8.99 at Amazon.com; ages 10 and up. Recommended by Jim Collins of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

6. Murderous Maths book series, by Kjartan Poskitt (Scholastic UK) $7.67 each at horriblebooks.com; ages 9 and up. Stacey F. Bent, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, says that the books provide “very humorous and engaging introductions to topics such as algebra, geometry and probability.”

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