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Toy Fair '07: Is it cool to like science now?

At the massive New York trade show, science toys are everywhere. But are educational pressures or legitimate kid interest at the root? Photos: Science is cool at Toy Fair

NEW YORK--Amid the madness of the 2007 American International Toy Fair here, a somewhat unexpected trend was visible: apparently, science rules.

Sure, there were plenty of dolls, toy pistols, building blocks and action figures, but toys designed to get kids interested in science had a noticeably prominent spot on the show floor.

School-oriented manufacturer Educational Insights was offering solar-energy playsets, digital recording labs and robotics kits, as well as binoculars, telescopes and microscopes that ran the gamut from preschool-oriented devices in primary colors to gadgets sophisticated enough for high school students.

One of Learning Resources' trademark products was Spill Your Guts, a board game designed to teach kids about human anatomy. Uncle Milton's Toys, the company that introduced the ant farm 50 years ago, was showcasing night lights that display the phases of the moon and souped-up board games where the players climb a topographically accurate miniature of Mount Everest.

And it seemed as though just about every company, whether it specialized in the educational market or not, was offering something for kids who want to be James Bond, 24's Jack Bauer or a member of the CSI crew: fingerprinting kits, circuit sets for creating intruder alarms, and other spy- and detective-oriented toys.

It all seemed a bit odd to me, as I recall not so fondly the pre-teen days when I found it socially obligatory to hide my chemistry and electronics sets if friends came to visit. The ubiquity of science kits and gadgets at the Toy Fair made me wonder--is science actually cool now?

A lot of it is practical--there's simply been an increased demand for educational toys. "In the past five or six years, it seems like the homeschool market has really taken off," said Zack Larkin, sales manager for C&A Scientific Co., which was showing off its new microscopes and chemistry lab sets at the Toy Fair.

It's not just homeschooled kids, either. In today's hypercompetitive education climate, where SAT and college preparation starts at an ever-younger age, parents may see science-oriented playthings as a way to give their kids an edge and bolster their interest in subjects like chemistry, biology and earth science.

Additionally, schools are quicker than ever to snatch up toys that will engage students in science and potentially boost grades. In the 2007-2008 school year, science testing will be mandated in public schools as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, something many of the sales representatives and publicists at the Toy Fair were quick to mention to prospective buyers.

But all talk of government education requirements aside, science still might be legitimately cool among today's kids. Despite the perpetual debate over whether the United States is in raising the world's best scientists, today's pop-culture climate is remarkably conducive to making science trendy.

Looking at the various anatomy play sets, I couldn't help but wonder if the Gross-Out Heart Dissection toys would appeal to kids who have heard their parents and older siblings rave about Grey's Anatomy, Scrubs and House M.D. The ubiquity of forensic science and spy gear at the Toy Fair can probably be traced to the popular Spy Kids movie franchise, teen TV detective show Veronica Mars, and of course the perpetual popularity of the James Bond movies. And interest in the dioramas of wildlife figurines from Safari Ltd. will almost undoubtedly get a boost from the runaway hit movie Night at the Museum.

Even YouTube has its influence. Be Amazing, a toy company that specializes in chemistry sets, was drawing massive crowds with its demonstration of a "geyser" apparatus that allows kids to replicate the experiments that have resulted in an explosive (literally) viral video sensation.

Just think about it: maybe the apparent lapse in American kids' interest in science and engineering could be reversed by the popularity of online videos depicting wacky prank-experiments where kids blow things up, rewire gadgets and "pimp out" vehicles. Clearly, science doesn't have to be relevant for it to be cool.