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From Robots to Rockets, New Toys Teach Science

Science can be fun.

That was the lesson hundreds of companies hope young people will draw from their latest products, which were on display in New York last week at the annual American International Toy Fair.

Some 1,500 toymakers from 31 countries showed off more than 5,000 new toys - many of them designed to help kids have fun with science.

For example, that was no ordinary balloon that Christian Gackstatter was pumping up for reporters. The president of Cold Spring Direct was inflating his company's noisemaking nipple-nozzle rocket balloon - which can zoom 15 to 20 meters into the air.

The toy is intended to teach children some basic science concepts. "You are actually holding a volume of air in a balloon," says Mr. Gackstatter. "And the sides of that balloon are squeezing on it, and that has to go out through a nozzle. That is acceleration. The air is the mass, and that accelerated mass turning into a force sends it up into the air. An action has an equal and opposite reaction!"

Kids find the toy appealing because, Mr. Gackstatter says, they "always like things that are cool sounding and they can run after." But he admits, "adults will ruin it for them and explain why it's fun."

Cold Spring is not alone in trying to combine science with old-fashioned fun. Reyne Rice, who analyzes product trends for the Toy Industry Association, says more than $800 million worth of science-oriented toys were sold in 2004.

"Part of the reason is that they make science exciting," she explains. "For example, instead of taking a metal detector -- which may be a piece of metal wand that you go over sand and try to find a metal piece -- now you can use a remote control vehicle to do that. And the remote control vehicle is cool."

Other toys take classic playthings and re-fashion them to stimulate young minds. For example, Paul Hildebrandt of Zometools has developed a construction toy of plastic parts that can be assembled into shapes. The product also doubles as a mathematical research tool into the structure of DNA, crystals and other natural forms.

"It turns kids into geniuses," he says. "You could say it builds genius."

Mr. Hildebrandt picks up a complex geometrical model called a dodecahedron made of 42 Zome parts. "It's a shape kids can build," he says, "but which has the added attraction of modeling what some theorists say may be the actual shape of the universe."

The shape is also related to the subatomic structure of the atom. "So this really permeates the structure of our three-dimensional world, and it can take kids to higher dimensions as well," he says.

Plus, it's fun to play with. "That's the first thing," notes designer Hildebrandt. "It has to be fun, and it is fun, and it turns out that learning really is fun."

The Toy Fair's award for Most Innovative Toy of the Year went to an interactive robot companion named Robosapien V2. Standing 34 centimeters high, Robosapien can imitate almost any action its owner teaches it. The figure also recognizes three colors with its visual sensors, and boasts scores of other features.

"The technology is neat because we can do now with a really good body and a small processor what normally requires gyroscopes and laptops and big calculations to do," says robotics physicist Mark Tilden, who designed the toy for the Wowee Corporation. "And this guy's flexibility is actually good. He is able to do a complete disco dance, never falling down, without requiring any complex calculations."

While Robosapien's appearance is human-like, Mr. Tilden says the robot is more like a walking lobster. "His skeleton is, in fact, his hard shell," he says. "He has to survive in the marketplace. And that means a robot that is tough enough to take a spill down the stairs without breaking. And that winds up being something that is very different evolutionary approach!"

Not to mention one that has evolved far beyond traditional toys like bouncing balls and spinning tops.