On a recent holiday, both my sons were fascinated by a visit to an industrial museum. At the inevitable gift shop, the nine-year-old decided to spend all his holiday pocket money on an electrics kit. The price seemed high - over Pounds 10 - but I assumed, perhaps naively, that we would get our money's worth from a reputable organisation that stressed its commitment to education.
Back home my son attempted to follow the instructions and create some of the simple circuits shown in the accompanying guide. He tried unsuccessfully for half an hour to get his bulb to light and was very upset when he couldn't get it right.
Remembering my O-level physics, I checked his connections and found he'd wired the circuit correctly. But my assurances that it wasn't his fault were taken with a pinch of salt. He believed he'd failed and that I was simply trying to soften the blow.
My husband has a degree in electronic engineering. Within seconds, he spotted that one of the two bulbs was broken and that the second fitted so badly in its holder that only a brief, intermittent connection could be made. My son was lucky - his dad has hoarded his boyhood electrics kit for 30 years and raided it for a suitable holder and bulb to make the experiment work.
With more help from the old kit than the new, together with explanations from dad, my son quickly mastered circuit theory - and for the past three weeks our house has been taken over by enthusiastic experimentation, with bells ringing and lights flashing.
But few children using this kit would have had someone available to give an instant remedy, and the most likely result would have been that the kit was abandoned in frustration, with all enthusiasm for experimentation lost. The child would have learned that science was difficult and never worked.
In my letter of complaint to the museum shop, I drew attention to the negative attitude that some children have for science and suggested that organisations selling supposedly educational products should accept some responsibility for items that they choose to stock. I subsequently received a short note from a junior member of staff, which ignored all the points I made, indicated that the problem was the responsibility of the manufacturer and trusted any future purchases I made from them would be wholly satisfactory.
If adults in senior positions cannot appreciate the importance of science, what hope is there for children? Perhaps those who are concerned about the reasons for the declining interest in science should consider whether the myriad of toys and games that are apparently designed to do the teachers' job are really up to the mark.
Damage to a child's enthusiasm may never be repaired. A faulty kit can have far wider implications than can be remedied by the Sale of Goods Act.
Denise Bates lives in Stalybridge, Cheshire TES july 26 1996 Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to Agenda, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY. Fax: 0171-782 3200.