If your shopping list includes a science-minded kid (or kid at heart), a telescope can make a great gift, but navigating the choices is challenging, especially if you've not bought a telescope before. The feature that you'll want to pay the most attention to isn't the magnification level claimed on the box, it is the stability of the mount. A flimsy, unstable tripod will make for a frustrating experience.
Telescopes packed with electronics and the promise to aim the telescope for you may be tempting, especially for the video-game generation. Like anything, you get what you pay for and their accuracy might not be what you expect. The gears, motors and electronics are no magic wand. They'll get you close, but how well you've aligned the telescope during setup, something that is required before each use, will determine whether the planet you were hoping to see will be in view or not. Telescopes that add GPS functionality can further automate these setup steps but they also significantly add to the price.
Unless you plan to spend several hundred dollars or more, consider a tabletop model (also called mini Dobsonians by some manufacturers). They range from $50 to $100 and come with everything you need to get started. A backyard picnic table provides a stable base. These little telescopes produce better images than telescopes many times the price and size and are very portable.
For the young meteorologist on your list, there is no shortage of electronic weather stations to pick from. Many include a wireless remote sensor which sends outdoor temperature, wind and other readings. While these can be a fun way to learn more about weather, accuracy varies widely. Placement of the outdoor sensor will really impact accuracy. Check the product's manual for recommended mounting locations before you buy.
We are fortunate to have a number of top-rated science museums, zoos and aquaria right close by. A membership makes a great gift for the whole family.
The NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and Museum of Life+Science offer memberships at varying levels starting at under $50. Members receive free admission for the year and discounted or free tickets to special exhibits and members-only events.
Each is a member of the Association of Science - Technology Centers which provides the added benefit of free or discounted admission to similar museums across the country. Some are even offering holiday discounts on memberships.
For that future oceanographer or veterinarian, consider North Carolina Zoo or Aquarium memberships. Both offer various levels of membership and offer free admission to the zoo in Asheboro along with the three North Carolina Aquariums on the coast at Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher. All are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums offering free or discounted admission to member zoos across the country.
If you'd like to wrap up a little more than a membership card, add a plush version of their favorite animal or even a plush microbe.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.