Science gifts for Christmas: 1999

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how much easier the home computer has made Christmas shopping, and I agree–but not because I’m doing a lot of shopping on-line. I find computers have made Christmas shopping easier by opening up a whole new range of gift ideas. Any kid with a computer is a candidate for a computer-related gift: preferably, of course, if I have anything to do with it, one with a scientific bent.

After an arduous search, I came up with the perfect example. (Well, OK, actually it was the first thing I saw when I went into the store, but it’s still the perfect example!) The IntelPlay QX3 Computer Microscope would have made me ecstatic as a kid, had I dreamed I’d one day have my own computer to hook it too. This colorful device is essentially a digital camera hooked up to a microscope. Kids can examine and capture still, moving and time-lapsed images of tiny objects at magnifications ranging from 10X to 200X (on a 15-inch monitor; larger monitors provide larger magnifications). They can even remove the microscope from its base and use it to look at objects that wouldn’t otherwise fit under it, like the hairs on their arms or the fleas on their dog.

The QX3 software includes paint tools so kids can manipulate the images they capture, print them as posters or stickers, turn them into computer slideshows complete with music and sound, and e-mail them to friends. Traditional microscope accessories such as prepared slides, containment dishes, sample jars, tweezers and an eyedropper are also included. (Be aware before you buy, though, that the QX3 requires a USB connection–something older computers may not support.)

The QX3 isn’t the only computer-related gift combining computer and non-computer elements. It almost looks like a trend.

For example, Hasbro Interactive has combined the toy workbench with the computer in its Tonka Workshop CD-ROM Playset. The workbench, which includes several toy tools, from a hammer to a power drill, is placed over the keyboard. As the child plays with the toy tools, the appropriate keys are pressed to activate 24 virtual tools in a computer game full of building, exploring and challenges.

Similarily, the Matchbox Caterpillar Construction Zone uses a “CAT controller” that fits over the keyboard to let you drive six Caterpillar machines, including a track loader, tractor and excavator, as you move dirt around virtual construction sites.

Of course, even without accompanying accessories, software makes a good gift. One type worth considering is a good electronic encylopedia. Consider McLelland & Stewart’s Canadian Encyclopedia Student Edition. Designed specifically for students up to Grade 9, this two-CD set includes encylopedia articles with built-in Internet links, movies, illustrations, maps, sounds, music and video, and the complete text of Gage’s Canadian Dictionary and Thesaurus for good measure. Best of all, it all has a Canadian focus.

There’s also a lot of software that focuses on a particular topic in great detail. For example, BodyWorks 6.0 is a multimedia guide to the human body, from head to toe. It includes 3D rotating models of various systems, high-resolution graphics and animation, multimedia lectures, built-in lessons and quizzes, audio pronunciations of anatomical terms and a glossary.

Finally, there are games that combine fun with education. In a game called Zap!, you’re the guest director at the Wonder Dome, a world-famous auditorium of light, sound and electricity. But lightning has zapped the theatre, putting the laser control system out of action. You have to learn everything you can about light, sound and electricity in order to rescue the show. Using scientific principles, you set up and test experiments with lasers, sound waves and circuits–and eventually, create your own virtual laser-and-sound shows! The game includes more than 200 science articles from the World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia to help you learn what you need to know.

An old warhorse of the genre still worth mentioning is the latest “Carmen Sandiego” game, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? Players begins looking for Carmen Sandiego deep within the tombs of Ancient Egypt, and search through history, learning about ancient civilizations along the way and meeting people from Kublai Khan to Queen Elizabeth I. A complementary Web site provides hints, links to other related websites, and even articles from Encylopedia Britannica Online about the various historical time periods.

Hmmm. Did I say these gifts were for kids? I think I’d be happy to see any of them under my own tree this Christmas.

Are you listening, Santa?

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