Top 10 great STEM gifts for 2013

I know it’s a bit late to be putting out a holiday gift guide for this year, so consider this the official guide for STEM gifts for the new year!  So, without further adieu, starting from #10:

#10.  Telescope

What's up there?  How far away?  Are we alone?

What’s up there? How far away? Are we alone?  Photo by Ryan Wick.

Yep, this is an old standard, but kids and adults have always gazed at the heavens and wondered what all is up there.  There are good telescopes and not-so-good ones.  You’re better off spending the money to get a good one, meaning better optics, magnification, and thus the ability to see fascinating things like the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, and star clusters.  This is what keeps us all enraptured and coming back for more.  There are lots of good telescopes on Ebay, Amazon, and through online vendors.  I recommend Celestron and Meade as good brands to investigate.

#9.  Chemistry kit

Chemistry kit

The Chemistry C500 kit from Thames and Kosmos. Photo from Edmund Scientific website.

Chemistry is not only a great way to make things bang and foam, but is central to our ability to explain the way the world works.  Chemistry kits have had a hard time in the last half of the 20th century and beginning of this century – litigious types have removed almost all of the most interesting chemicals from such kits, dulling the purpose of buying them at all.  Yet, there is still a point, and for ages 10 and up, it’s important to help draw the connection between the world that is seen and the atomic scale.

I like the chemistry kits listed on the Edmund Scientific site because there are a lot of options and price ranges to choose among.

#8.  Discovery Scope

Discovery Scope

Discovery Scope. Photo from

This simple wide-field microscope is great for finding hidden things in the yard, at the beach, the mountains, or anywhere you happen to be.  Kids can explore the finest details of biology, minerals, and the rest of their discovered world.  Combine this gift with a journal where kids can draw what they see and add notes, and you’ve got yourself a budding field biologist in the making!

#7.  Museum of Math admission

A Circular Ride on a Square-Wheeled Tricycle

Museum of Math – A Circular Ride on a Square-Wheeled Tricycle. Photo from Museum of Math.

The new Museum of Math has opened in New York City, and it looks to be tons of fun!  If you live in the area, perhaps a trip to the museum is in order for the new year.  A report on the radio here in Seattle indicates there aren’t many numbers in the museum, just fun activities that demonstrate the applications of math to everyday life.  The square-wheeled tricycle rolling smoothly on a semicircular surface is getting a lot of press as well.  I plan to go when I am next in the Big Apple.

#6.  Evolve or Perish

Evolve or Perish game

Evolve or Perish! Photo from Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

This is a fun new game by artist-author Hannah Bonner that mimics the popular Chutes and Ladders game, except you have to evolve or perish.  It’s a great way to introduce children of all ages to the concepts of natural selection and evolution (although the site recommends the youngest children have adult guidance).  The best part?  You can download the game FOR FREE from the link above!

#5.  LEGO Mindstorms

LEGO Mindstorms robot

LEGO Mindstorms NXT basic robot.

Having used Mindstorms kits in a high school robotics classroom, I can say that they present enough challenge for even the geekiest 16-year-old hacker, yet are simple enough given the instructions that kids with no robotics background can snap together a working system in an hour or two.  The kits are intended for ages 10 and up, and I wish this had been around when I was 10!  I used the educational kit in the classroom, but the 8547 kit on the LEGO site looks similar.  Beware the price, though:  at $280, this is not a gift for the faint of wallet, which actually moved it back up my list a bit.

#4.  Hummingbird Robotics Kit

A dinosaur robot made using the Hummingbord kit.  Rowr!  Photo by Birdbrain Technologies

This kit comes from Carnegie Mellon University and their CREATE lab.  It is a simple robotics kit with modular parts intended for ages 10 and up.  The kit comes with servos, DC motors, lights, and other components that allow the construction of a wide variety of robots.  The price tag ($199) is intermediate compared to others on this page, but if you have the funds, the kids will have fun!

#3.  Unbored:  The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun


UNBORED book.  Photo from

With index entries like “Bike Exhaust Pipe”, “Fizz Bomb”, and “Ninja Training”, you know this book will appeal to kids.  It also appeals quite a bit to this adult, which is why it’s number one on my list for the new year.  With chapters contributed by MAKE Magazine gurus, game designers, and many other prominent leaders in the STEM, DIY, and Maker communities, the book provides a great introduction to learning and creating outside the box.  No kit required!  Make your own kit!  For this reason, the possibilities arising from this book are endless and it has greater reach than the kits shown earlier in this list.  I recommend you browse a copy now and get it for a kid near you!  Also see the website that accompanies the book,

#2.  GoldieBlox

GoldieBlox image

This project, which I’ve discussed previously on this site, was a successful Kickstarter project.  The end result is a soon-to-be-released series of engineering books that appeal to girls and have some research behind them, which makes them more likely to support actual learning outcomes.

#1.  RepRap DIY 3D printer

RepRapPro Huxley 3D printer

RepRapPro Huxley 3D printer. Photo from

3D printers allow you to design and make your own 3D objects by printing successive layers of plastic one on top of another.  Many 3D printers can also print using other materials.  Many industries now use 3D printing as a vital part of their fabrication process.  Think airplanes, cars, consumer packaging, and even biotech companies, who are experimenting with 3D printing to make tissues.   RepRap is a free, open-source, and DIY 3D printer site that gives you all the information you need to fabricate your own 3D printer.  The craziest part?  This printer can self-replicate.  You can print many of the parts for a second printer using the first printer.  Wild!  This isn’t for the younger crowd, but I can see a parent and a middle- or high-school student working on this as a great bonding activity over a few weekends.  The site recommends beginning with the Huxley model for small builds, and this seems to be quite a tractable way to start to me.


3 responses to “Top 10 great STEM gifts for 2013

  1. A good telescope will be vastly more expensive than the Lego Mindstorms. The budget oriented Orion telescopes are OK and a Dobsonian Newtonian (the most affordable) starts at $300. But for less money a great pair of binoculars and a tripod will reveal much of the same glory in the stars. And because they are far more portable, you are more likely to use them. They work in the day for bird watching too. For example, the Orion 20×80 (definitely need a tripod) are $150. At 20x you can see clouds on Jupiter and rings on Saturn with a careful eye. The moon and many nebulae will look stunning. Open clusters will be jaw dropping.

    • Thanks for the comments, Phil. You are correct that good telescopes are a lot of money, and you can certainly see a lot with good binoculars. The reason I recommend telescopes over binocs is that they have some additional features like exchangeable eyepieces (which can teach about optics), auto-find features if the telescope supports this (many affordable ones on EBay do, and this is helpful to new astronomers), and the ability to connect cameras down the road if desired. I have used both binoculars and a telescope to see the rings of Saturn, but the moons of Jupiter I can only get with the telescope. Perhaps I need to upgrade my binoculars, which are for birdwatching principally.

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