Intel QX3+ Computer Microscope
Teaches: science, nature, how to a microscope, creativity
Here's some good news. One of the most affordable, versatile microscopes from a few years back has been rereleased with updated drivers for Windows XP and Macintosh. The device plugs into your computer's USB port and puts some of the latest digital-imagery technology at the fingertips of even very young children. Kids will be amazed as they zoom in on a bug with a magnification of up to 200 times, or as they detach the microscope from its base to view the skin on their arms from the perspective of a hungry mosquito. Teachers will find that while the software has the look and feel of something for the home market, its capabilities are acceptable in a classroom. The kit offers an excellent way to explore the world that can't be seen with the naked eye, and is ideal for either home or school use. The Macintosh version requires an extra disk for $20, which contains the software and all the drivers for system 8.6 to 9.2 (not OSX). Digital Blue, 888-800-0502; playdigitalblue.com; Win/Mac; $59.99. Age 6 and up.
Designed for more serious use, this hair-dryer-shaped computer microscope plugs into the USB port of a Mac or Windows computer. just point the microscope at an ant or a butterfly wing, and it shows up magnified on your monitor in full detail, easy for a small group of children to see.
Weaknesses include a clunky software installation process that's a bit too technical (one call to tech support was required). Another drawback is the expense. Besides the initial $229, which includes the unit, software, and a 5OX lens, additional lenses (from 1OX to 20OX) are each at least $90 extra. Like the QX3+ Microscope, it requires no batteries-the device draws its power from your computer.
Of all the microscopes, this is the most education friendly, with lesson plans and curriculum-extension ideas. The microscope is bundled with USB Shot, which is designed for basic use. An optional software package, called LX-ProScope software ($120 extra) is much more serious, because it allows for measurements (it is used for crime scenes and industrial work, for example). Bodelin Technologies, 800-441-6877; theproscope.com; Win/Mac OSX; $229. Age 3 and up.
Photo Kit Junior
Teaches: literacy skills
This photo editor/organizer lets children play with your pictures using editing tools and a variety of games. We tested the Windows version and found that getting the pictures into the program can be tricky (a two-step process, requiring the navigation of Windows menus). The management system is child friendly, even for nonreaders. Note, however, that you'll want to have a digital camera to get the most out of the program. Students can build literacy skills and work independently creating books, movies, and puppets with digital images and text. Teachers can compile student work, create activities, and send illustrated books home. This software includes six activity centers: Book Center, Picture Show, Art Center, Puppet Show, Special Effects, and Games and Puzzles. APTE, Inc., 800-494-1112; apte.com; Win/Mac; $64.95. Age 3 and up.