Christmas Presents: Give them the Gift of ChemEng Knowledge

Article by Paul Okey

Paul Okey looks at present ideas to inspire budding chemical engineers (and maybe one or two to hang on to yourself)

PAUL GASCOIGNE vividly remembers the moment he wanted to become a professional footballer. “My dad gave me a football for Christmas when I was a boy,” he recalled. “I’ve wanted to be a professional footballer since I was seven.”

But what if the former England international’s dad had instead given him a chemistry set, a rainbow laboratory, and a book on engineers changing the world?

Well, he’d still have been a hugely successful footballer, but maybe one with a small grasp of basic chemical engineering principles and a long line in snot-coloured slime.

For budding chemical engineers, however, the chance to experiment with sodium bicarbonate, make a lava lamp, or learn about fusion pioneers may prove just as inspirational as the football did for a young “Gazza”.

With that in mind, we’ve picked out eight potential Christmas gifts for children through to adults to hopefully help make the festive season one to remember.

Rainbow Lab

Galt Toys; £11.20 (US$14.15); Ages 5-10

You can’t paint the whole world with a rainbow (one for the oldies), but you can get a pretty good grasp of the wonderful world of colour with this 12-experiment kit designed to encourage early STEM learning.

Test tubes, goggles, a pipette and a 24-page lab book add to the sense of chemical engineer in the making, with our ten-year-old reviewer saying: “I like trying the different experiments. It’s like I’m an actual scientist.”

Her four-year-old brother was a little more circumspect. Nevertheless, with an “I like it” it also gained his hard-won seal of approval.

Horrible Science: Explosive Experiments

Galt Toys; £16; Ages 8–12

Look away now process safety engineers.

In truth, “Explosive” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, with the erupting volcano, slimy snot, and lava lamp only likely to cause explosions if parents fail to protect easily damaged surfaces.

Nevertheless, the eight experiments provide plenty of bang for your buck. Particularly impressive was the rocket, which my six-year-old daughter launched over the fence and into next door’s garden, leading to an unusual take on “excuse me mister, please can I have my ball back?”.

Chemistry Molecular Model Kit (323 Pieces)

LINKTOR; £31.99; all ages

This kit features 122 atoms and 210 bond parts and is aimed at students from high school through to university, as well as educators.
TCE writer Amanda Jasi, who relived her university days with a spot of in-office guess the molecule, described it as “a decent bit of kit”.

She went on to say: “It will certainly help any uni students that are particularly visual learners, but as a graduate myself, I just had an enjoyable time testing my chemistry knowledge.”

Book: 'Engineers Making A Difference'

What On Earth Books; £16.99

Yasmin Ali was gushing in her praise of this book by Shini Somara, profiling the unique career paths and stories of 46 very different engineers.

Ali, a STEM ambassador, called it an “excellent resource”, going on to say: “It can be handed to a young person to show the variety of engineering careers out there in an engaging way, to teachers and careers advisers guiding students, or to anyone who is involved in engineering outreach activities.”

She loved it so much that after reviewing it she got four more copies to give to her Women’s Engineering Society summer work experience scheme students.

Chemical engineer T-shirt

RedBubble; £12.26; Available in sizes 1–2 years all the way through to 11–12

They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have. In Gazza’s case, that would merely have meant donning a football jersey, a pair of tight shorts and itchy knee-length socks. But with such a wide range of potential chemical engineering careers and therefore a lengthy shopping list of attire to choose from, this T-shirt is the perfect compromise.

Ion: A Compound-building Game

£14.99/£21.99; Age 8+

“Why not make learning about chemistry fun?” is the claim made by the manufacturers of this easy-to-pick-up card game. Ignoring the insinuation that learning about chemistry is anything other than fun, TCE editor Adam Duckett gave the game a whirl.

“‘I’m actually learning chemistry.’ ‘I’d definitely play that again.’ This strategic deck-building game certainly got a good reaction in our household. You pit your wits against your opponents to neutralise your ion cards, and the more complex stable compounds you build, the more points you score. This is likely to play well among games fans with or without chemistry knowledge, and there’s an inbuilt advanced option that adds radioactive elements once you’ve mastered the base game. It works well as a teaching tool too, as the cards include facts about the molecules you’re building and how they are essential to our everyday lives. There was also a ‘this is fun’ but then I didn’t need to tell you that!”

Secret Santa

Chemical engineer I'm Not Arguing Socks; RedBubble; £11.28

Nothing says Christmas like a pair of novelty socks. And nothing says January charity bag like a pair of novelty socks. But at least you can get into the festive spirit in between by donning these on Christmas Day. Perfect for bringing an end to any post-dinner arguments.

A gift to yourself

Cool Leaf Gin Making Kit; £23.99

Containing everything you need to make your very own signature craft gin, the kit comes with six bartender-approved recipes that were apparently formulated after “several months of hard work and research”.

However, with 11 botanicals to choose from, there’s plenty of room for experimentation. Our reviewer, a former chemical engineering lecturer, was certainly very “infusiastic”...

The gin making kit came nicely packaged, with two 375 ml (3.75 × 10–4 m3) bottles, their seals, some measurement, mixing, crushing, and separation equipment, and an enticing array of spices, herbs, bark, roots, seeds, fruit, and flowers. I couldn’t wait to get started…but the kit contained no alcohol! Fortunately, my pantry yielded one half-bottle of own-brand vodka.

My desultory hazard analysis suggested that the thick glass bottles would maintain their integrity if I was careful and that 37.5% alcohol by volume is unlikely to ignite, especially without a flame. I assumed the alcohol would address any food hygiene risks. The standard operating procedure was relatively systematic and clear, but imprecise – for example, the recipe prescribes adding “1 teaspoon (38–40 juniper) berries” and a “pinch” of dried orange peel to 350 ml vodka – while no metering device (measuring jug) was included. The funnel provided to transfer juniper berries of up to 7 mm diameter (before being crushed) had an outlet diameter of just 8 mm. Steps 3 and 4 both involve a 24-hour period for infusion, although the process temperature is not specified.

I followed the recipe provided with the kit to make a half-batch of “classic dry” gin (juniper berries, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, liquorice root, cinnamon stick, and dried orange peel), and no, a degree in chemical or process engineering was not needed. I then decided to focus on the art of gin making, rather than the engineering of it, and started to have fun.

I followed my heart for the other half-batch, adding arbitrary quantities of fresh lemon zest, fresh root ginger, and dried orange peel to the juniper berries. There’s a two-day wait before my creations will be ready for quality assessment, but by the time you read this article, I will know whether the no-frills vodka taste has been masked, and whether ginger-citrus combination works.

The many other options are terrifically inviting (raspberry and hibiscus, anyone? or perhaps a mince pie-inspired fruit and spice combination?). I am already looking forward to the next round of creations!

Article by Paul Okey

Sub-editor, The Chemical Engineer

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