Safety in High School Science Departments

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i-a01d8ebecfc55032aba675dbd5e54661-studentns_burned_science_class.jpgFour students in one of our local junior high schools were involved in an uncontrolled fire and/or explosion a few hours ago. It was in a physical science class. One of the students was burned severely and is in the Hennepin County Hospital burn unit. His injuries are not life threatening by my understanding is that his face is covered with second degree degree burns or worse. The other students are not at present hospitalized.

The mishap occurred during the demonstration of an experiment that was intended to be a “reward” for the students performance in class. There are various stories floating around as to exactly what happened, but I won’t repeat them here because they are not verified and there is not enough detail for that information to have any meaning. At this point we do not know what kind of accident this was, how it may have been prevented. I think, however, it is safe to say that it is generally a bad thing for students to get blown up in science class.

And, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you something you may not know about your local high school.

I have been in a lot of high school science labs, and I’ve had conversations with a lot of different science teachers over the years, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: It is very easy for the amount of work that needs to be done to keep things safe to exceed available resources. There are many science departments where dangerous substances are not properly stored, and in some cases not properly handled. There is a very simple reason for this and, therefore, a very simple solution. Which will never happen, unfortunately.

The reason for the problem is this: For the most part, the resources distributed among academic departments in the average high school do not account for differences in requirements. Yes, it is true that a high school will typically spend some of the additional funds needed for special departments. The fine art department requires gear that the language arts department does not. Science teaching labs are covered in budget lines that do not exist for non-lab disciplines. And so on. But when it comes to personnel resources, there is generally not much adjustment made for science departments. A school with a dozen science teaching rooms and 20 or 30 science teachers should have two or three full time staff dedicated to managing and maintaining the labs, which includes purchasing, managing and maintaining equipment, special prep, and seeing to safety concerns. As it is, this almost never happens, and the teachers themselves must take on ALL of these responsibilities. Even with a small staff of dedicated lab managers, the teachers will still have plenty to do; This staff would not be able to come close to covering all the needs. But, a dedicated staff would endure that certain things that almost never happen in high school science labs do happen.

I have no idea if the accident that happened today would have been prevented by having dedicated lab staff. And, it does not matter to my argument; There should be dedicated lab staff. In small schools, at any given time, one or two science teachers could have a course release (a.k.a. “free prep”) to fulfill this role, and along with this, receive appropriate training. In larger schools, some combination of full time staff and teachers can be involved. In all cases, all the science teachers need to take part in maintenance, prep, and safety, as they do now. And, there are plenty of different models to chose from as to how the work is divided up. And, again, the need for this in many, probably most high schools is real regardless of the cause of today’s unfortunate event. But, the event that happens today could simply draw attention to safety concerns more generally, and thus, allow for some discussion of improved support for science teachers.

And, to reiterate: The cause is simply the tendency for personnel resources (teachers, to be exact) to be distributed uniformly across academic disciplines, forcing teachers in certain areas to shoulder workloads and responsibilities that go far beyond others; And the solution is to create an appropriate number of FTE’s dedicated to science teaching support and safety.

You could suggest this to your local school board. A simple email may help.

The news report on today’s accident is here.

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18 thoughts on “Safety in High School Science Departments

  1. I read somewhere (and I can’t remember where) that accidents in school labs are becoming less frequent but when they do occur, they tend to be more serious. In the days before the widespread use of safety glasses, gloves, etc people would sometimes get minor burns and other damage that would teach them to be more careful. This is less likely to happen now so people tend to be more cavalier in their treatment of dangerous materials (except for the wearing of safety glasses).

    This is not helped by the complete lack of proportion shown by many text books. I vividly remember one that instructed students to don safety glasses before starting. What were they doing? Counting beans. If everything requires precautions, how will the students recognize the procedures that actually are hazardous?

  2. Good point, but perhaps one should argue that if you are doing a lab you should have the safety glasses on becuase you are at the work bench and some idiot is gong to fling something not in the lab protocol at you. Or, more likley, the lab was based on a template and they forgot to erase it.

    I wonder if a drop in accidents could also be due in part to a drop in science labs being done at all. As class sizes go up and budgets go down labs get removed from lesson plans.

  3. Very sorry for the kids and the teacher involved whom I am sure is mortified. I am the Chemical Hygiene Contact for our district (I am Ex-Navy and have the background). One thing I recommend for all science teachers (and I am not a paid spokesman for) is sign up for the free Flinn Scientific Safety course, It’s 30 hours of free online courses, with quizzes and a certificate when completed. It has a course for secondary and one course for Jr High.

  4. This is one of the reasons you can’t buy a decent home chemistry set anymore. Bad shit can happen. While support for science teachers is warranted necessary and important, the more likely outcome is dump the labs (at least the potentially dangerous and stimulating ones).

  5. Not about this specific case, but…

    Kids will always think it is “fun” to throw dangerous items at one another, regardless of any teacher safety instruction.

    These could be nails in a carpentry class, flicking hot solder in an electronics class, sodium in a chemistry class etc etc.

    It’s not just limited to lab. Surely the basic issue is one of social responsibility?

    That said, there are things better done in a PC simulation. But who decides which ones, and from which age(?) social responsibility is sufficient to allow unrestricted interaction with the real world?

  6. The most dangerous lab we ever did was burning a tiny bit of magnesium in a crucible. Although the fish dissection got pretty worrisome when the fish eyeballs started flying around the room 😛

    In my high school gifted chemistry class we only did the one lab. The rest was math. And blind furry critters that dig tunnels. The few times we ever used the “lab” stations in the science classrooms were in biology and anatomy classes and we used them for dissections. I was pretty disappointed that we didn’t get to blow stuff up do cool experiments.

  7. We did all sorts of nifty stuff. The labs always started with explanations and occasional demonstrations of the consequences of possible accidents.

    We burned magnesium and used a silver solution (the stain stayed on my finger for most of a year). We also watched a small clod of sodium zip around a bucket of water. We also did the hydrogen courage test, after producing our own H2 with HCl and Mg. And this was in 1998/99. Of course this was in Alberta.

  8. Here is a link to where they explain what the experiment was.

    It was lighting the fumes inside a jug of methanol. The problem with using methanol is that at room temperature, the vapor pressure of pure methanol puts pretty much exactly the stoichiometric fuel/air ratio inside the jug. Methanol jugs are usually not made to withstand any kind of handling or pressure, so it burst.

    The way to do this is with something safer, like vodka. Straight grain alcohol (190 proof) has a lower vapor pressure than methanol, but ethanol has a higher molecular weight so the stoichiometric fuel/air ration is lower too. It turns out that at room temperature the vapor pressure of pure ethanol is also pretty much exactly the stoichiometric fuel/air ratio.

    You don’t want a stoichiometric fuel/air ratio, you want something that will burn, but that won’t burn so fast that it breaks the bottle. You need to use a more dilute solution of alcohol (80 proof works pretty well), and you also want to make sure that you don’t have a lot of excess fuel in the bottle (i.e. drink most of it first). That is harder to do with methanol because you can’t drink it more than once. The water depresses the vapor pressure of the alcohol so there is less fuel in the air.

    Also, the bottles that vodka come in are stronger than the bottles that methanol comes in. They are also smaller (1.75 liter vs 3.8 liter) and have a handle which acts as reinforcing. I have never had a liquor bottle explode on me. Also, methanol bottles tend to be brown glass which really detracts from the effect. You want a sub-stoichiometric fuel/air mixture so that the flame front moves slowly.

    Also, take out the speed pourer or the restriction will greatly accelerate the combustion rate (then the bottle might break).

  9. Thanks for posting this. I got accepted to a Master’s program for science ed and start in January. Safety issues and personnel concerns weren’t really on my radar yet, but this post will make me think more about both. I am curious to see how safety issues are handled in my classes and then in the science dept where I will eventually work. Training was a big part of work at the landscape company I most recently worked for. I’ll see to it it is in the future.

    When I taught Horticulture in a high school, I had to look after landscaping equipment and supplies, manage 2 greenhouses (not too small either) and a small nursery, handle FFA and… oh yeah, teach. I had been promised a student helper, but that never materialized. It certainly made things hard. I hope at least to have other science teachers to work with when I teach again.

  10. Some of the comments above disturb me. We shouldn’t be about limiting labs, but doing labs safely. There is no reason in the world to take chemistry. Few of us ever break down everything we eat, touch, use etc. in chemical terms. The only reason to take chemistry in High School is to make kids think. Inquiry based labs that take the thought process to its limit. My job is to prepare good citizens who can think and not just go with what the advertisers (politicians) tell them what is “in”. I am to perturb their minds into problem solving. Safe chem experiments are there, they are work for a teacher but not “cookbook” labs. These are labs students remember and discuss with their own kids. To stop doing labs is to stop teaching science.

  11. If you want to make schools safer start by eliminating sports. Nothing safer than an obese teenager waddling to the refrigerator between three-hour sessions of _Grand Theft Auto_. And absolutely no bicycle riding! Drive them everywhere.


  12. Fond memory. In reading one of my father’s ordanance manuals (he was an Army officer), I came across thermite. After little experimentation with potential initiators, I knew I was on the right track when I thought of a mix of potassium permangante and powdered magnesium. That was when my chemistry teacher told me to take the whole setup outside to the parking lot and wait for him. Let me say, the reaction was every bit as impressive as I thought it would be!

  13. Lance Gritton:

    To stop doing labs is to stop teaching science.

    Quoted for truth. Science is about research and it is about *experiment*. If schools are eliminating lab time, is it any wonder that so many whackos on the Internet today believe that reading stuff from Google counts as research? When they went to school, it probably *did* count. There is a very real sentiment that any knowledge that is worth knowing must be out there on the Internet, waiting for just the right Google search to reveal it. This is a dangerous attitude, and a very sad one.

    When I was in high school, I had some awesome teachers for chemistry, physics, and biology. We got lab time, too. It was lovely. But I know there wasn’t anyone in charge of the labs. Each teacher was responsible for their own lab, in addition to their teaching duties. The biggest safety problem we ever had was more of a facilities issue — a gas line leading to the chem labs ruptured, triggering an evacuation. (In January. THAT was fun. After a while, as they realized the problem could not be resolved quickly and none of us had outerwear, we were relocated to the cafeteria, which was at the opposite end of the building from the labs.)

    My first thought when I saw this story on the news was that the teacher probably didn’t do a trial run of the experiment on his own. Also, I seem to recall hearing that there were other flammables on the bench which contributed to the seriousness of the problem. The latter is a lab safety issue, but the former makes me think of a professor I had in freshman chem at college. He had a tendency to do experiments in class which he’d never attempted before. Sometimes they went badly. He came up with a great idea to let us all see liquid carbon dioxide. He appropriated a disposable eyedropper from the bio department. He opened the tip up a little so he could squeeze some dry ice inside. Then he clamped it shut with a pair of pliers and held it over a overhead projector. This projected its silhouette onto the wall, as the heat from the bulb rapidly warmed the CO2. And it worked! We actually could see *boiling* CO2 inside the eyedropper — for about five seconds. Then he lost his grip on the pliers, and the eyedropper shot across the room like a rocket, bouncing off of several walls before coming to a stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but that could’ve put out an eye. This was in a classroom, not a lab, so nobody was wearing any sort of eye protection.

    BTW, I have to second the comment about wearing eye protection even for doing stupid banal things. You don’t know what some other idiot is doing. My daughter’s eye doctor has a video running on continuous loop in his waiting room. It’s a good educational bit, explaining terms and what sorts of products are available for various things. No brand names get mentioned; it is purely educational. A fairly long segment is devoted to occupational injuries. It cites a statistic (don’t remember the exact number nor where they got it — I’ll have to pay attention next time I’m there) saying how many eye injuries are the result of *someone else’s work*. Maybe you’re not machining right now, but if the guy 20 feet away is, you could still get shrapnel in your cornea. I would guess this number is as high as it is mostly because people tend to base their eyewear needs on what they themselves are doing.

  14. I work as a lab manager in a school and I can assure everyone out there that the reason accidents happen in school chemistry classes is that school teachers are undertrained, ignorant, unprofessional, arrogant, irresponsible total f.cking morons

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