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10 must-have STEM toys that are backed by science

A gift guide of the hottest educational toys for your budding scientist, engineer, or mathematician.

Photo by stem.T4L on Unsplash
  • STEM toys help children build important science, technology, engineering, and math skills.
  • From fossil kits to programmable robots, there are lots of great options for kids of all ages.
  • This STEM gift guide will set you on the right path this holiday season.


When it comes to shaping how the world will look in the future, the power of learning through play can not be overstated. From brain-teasing puzzles to fun experiments, there has been a widespread push for learners of all ages to have access to products that are both stimulating and engaging. According to industry research, 91% of parents believe that STEM/STEAM-focused toys can help their children develop skills like cognitive reasoning, critical thinking, and design, but what exactly is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEAM adds an "A" for the arts). Building from a decades-old idea that these were important tools for helping humanity understand and interact with the universe, Judith Ramaley (former director of the National Science Foundation's Education and Human Resources Division) coined the term back in 2001. Since then, educators, scientists, and parents have been developing new ways to incorporate the elements into classrooms and play dates. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education invested $540 million to support STEM educational programs. The demand for STEM toys is high, but there are a lot of great products out there, so here are 10 that you should add to this year's shopping list.

Newton wishes he had this creative tower building game.

The ThinkFun Gravity Maze is part marble run and part logic game. The brightly colored pieces make constructing towers fun, and there are 60 challenges ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert that will teach your builder planning and spatial reasoning skills.

Inspire future software developers and programmers with this adorable coding robot.

Artie 3000 makes coding fun by adding in a bit of artsy flare. Beginner and more advanced coders can use programming languages to turn the cute Wi-Fi-enabled robot into a tabletop Picasso. The designs range from pre-coded geometric shapes to more complex mandalas, or whatever your young coder can come up with. No internet connection is required! All you need is 4 AA batteries and a phone, computer, or tablet to connect to and Artie 3000 is ready to draw.

This activity kit takes rock collecting to the next level with genuine gemstones and real fossils.

This activity set from National Geographic takes the chance out of rock and mineral hunting and replaces it with loads of educational material about the over 200 specimens included in each set. Armed with a magnifying glass, an identification sheet, and an identification guide, young geologists can spend weeks studying rough and polished minerals, cracking open geodes, and learning about prehistoric sharks and other sea creatures.

Discover how ecosystems work with this glow-in-the-dark terrarium.

Rated ages 6 to 96, this cool terrarium kit allows young scientists to build an ecosystem and watch it grow. Complete with a plastic jar, potting mix, chia and wheat grass seeds, figurines, sand, stones, and glow-in-the-dark stickers, the only ingredients needed to bring the terrarium to life are water, time, and an inquisitive mind.

A colorful building game that involves math and fine motor skills.

What sets the Mathlink Builders game apart from other building toys are the activity cards and uniquely shaped pieces. Children are asked to count pieces according to color as they build and are challenged to think critically as they attempt to solve more complex puzzles. The 100-piece toy also allows children to create from their own imaginations.

Toddlers build cognitive and motor skills with this train puzzle game.

Using instructions in the Challenge Booklet, children ages 3+ have to connect wagons to the Brain Train and fill them based on the shape and color of the available pieces. Each of the 48 challenges has one only possible solution, which means that players have to concentrate and problem solve to figure it out. When they do, they have a cute and colorful train to roll around!

An augmented reality globe that turns geography into an immersive experience.

A sneaky way to turn screen time into learning time, this app-based globe connects to smartphones and tablets to make discovering monuments, animals, and cultures around the world more interactive. 3D animations, hundreds of entries, and over 1,000 fun facts equal hours of productive play and a greater appreciation for the planet.

Turn a Nintendo Switch into so much more with this DIY variety kit.

The Nintendo Switch is great as a gaming console, but it has the potential to be so much more. The Nintendo Labo Variety Kit includes projects for building RC cars, a fishing pole, motorbike handlebars, a house, and a piano. The kit is great for collaborative engineering projects, and the pieces are made of cardboard so you won't need any special tools to get playing.

A fun, safe way to learn about circuitry and electrical currents.

Harnessing the power of 3 AAA batteries (not included), this logic game teaches the fundamentals of electronics in a way that is challenging and dynamic. There are 60 maze challenge cards included in each set. The goal of each is to build a closed circuit, and the reward for doing so is a beacon that will light up almost as brightly as your future electrical engineer.

These colorful tiles use magnets to form just about any 3D structure.

Magnets! These clear geometric tile sets are popular because of the limitless possibilities they afford creative thinkers. From architectural structures to fictional creatures, children learn to use color, shape, and space to form three-dimensional objects. They also learn about the polarity of magnets and what it takes to keep a structure from toppling over (gravity, etc.).

When you buy something through a link in this article Big Think earns a small affiliate commission. Thank you for supporting our team's work.



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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

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Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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