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Published: Saturday, 12/4/2010

These gifts could give a kid a high-tech future

ATLANTA -- Give your child a brighter future with a holiday gift that's wrapped in technology.

This generation of American kids grew up with computers, the Internet and devices that would have seemed magical to engineers a generation before. It's fairly routine nowadays for a teenager to be the family's go-to person when it comes to fixing the computer or getting the Internet connection to work.

But when compared with the rest of the world, using results from 2009 testing of eighth-grade students around the globe, the U.S. trails badly -- ranking 11th worldwide in science scores, ninth in math.

It's great that today's young people seem techno-literate, but many if not most lack a basic understanding of the science behind the gadgets they use. One way to close that knowledge gap is to step back to the time when it was common for a child to build a working radio or to mess with chemistry sets, erector sets and microscopes.

Today I'll suggest educational toys and kits that offer practical hands-on learning. My hope is that they'll be a spark that ignites your child's interest in the sciences.

Worst case? The gifts I suggest are fun for the entire family and may provide a way for parents and kids to spend time together exploring some fascinating new worlds.

I haven't listed appropriate age ranges with these gifts. That's because no kid is the same as another. You'll be the best person to make that call after reading about my suggestions on the Web sites I have listed.

A grain of salt looks like a crystal mountain, and a drop of water from a pond can turn into an entire universe of creatures that seem to have escaped from the set of a horror movie. A microscope opens up a real but hidden part of our world.

But a microscope is old hat, right? It may not seem to fit comfortably into a high-tech world. Well, this one does. The d-Vid USB microscope from Laboratory Essentials (http://tinyurl.com/29rlcyh) has a built-in video camera. That gives you video that you can watch live or use your computer to capture and save digital still or video images.

Even at a relatively affordable $145, it's no toy the same microscope is used by technicians and dentists.

When I was a young electronics experimenter, I created circuits on what is called a breadboard. Holes in the board and small pegs let me connect resistors, capacitors and the like using small wire wraps with no soldering needed. So I could quickly try until the circuit was right.

Breadboards are still around, but circuits now are usually designed at the computer using computer aided design. It has the same trial-and-error benefit of the breadboard but with a modern spin.

That's why I like the EDU8150 -- CD ElectroLab from Ramsey Electronics (http://tinyurl.com/23r9ex2). Not only do you get the real-world components to create a circuit, you also get a companion CD that lets the experimenter use CAD to tweak the design.

For just $34.95, your child gets a basic, up-to-date introduction to the science behind almost any high-tech gadget.

Many of us think of a robot as a humanlike critter that shuffles about on two feet, happily waves his arms and may even be able to conjure up a robotic smile.

But the workhorses of industry have long been the distinctly unhumanlike robotic arms that make quick welds at automotive plants or guide a widget into just the right place on assembly lines.

The OWI535-Low Cost Robotic Arm Edge Trainer Kit (http://tinyurl.com/5d3wft) lets your experimenter build a robotic arm that can open and close its jaws and rotate its wrist 120 degrees. The mechanical elbow has a range of 300 degrees.

Pay $47.95 for the kit or add an additional $89.95 for a USB interface that allows computer control of the arm.

I hesitated about adding this final gift since $289.99 may be too much to pay for many families. But, for those with the budget, this computerized telescope is likely to be used by the entire family for a long time.

Any beginner who has struggled to find a star or a planet knows that using a telescope can be frustrating. That's where the computer control of the Black AstroVenture 80mm Computer Controlled Refractor Telescope (http://tinyurl.com/365gw9z) comes in.

Just align the telescope with the relatively easy-to-find North Star. Once that's done, the computer can instantly find almost any object in the night sky and put it right in the telescope's viewing lens.

The built-in database contains 5,000 celestial objects, including galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and the planets. Once you have an object in view the motorized mount keeps it firmly centered.

Think of my suggestions as starters in your search for a science kit that fits your child's interests and your budget. Use Google to search for chemistry sets, electronics kits and even build-it-yourself computers. You'll also find other educational products on some of the websites I list.

Selecting an out-of-the-ordinary holiday gift can be a bit frightening. What if you spend the money on something that your children ignore? Any parent knows that's possible.

But the reward is worth the gamble because these kits build more than a gizmo, they may build a booster rocket for your child's future.



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