Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How do you stop high school chemistry demonstration accidents?

Thanks to Jyllian Kemsley, I see that the CSB has a new video out, and it's about a chemistry demonstration gone horribly awry. It ended in severe burns to the face of one of the students:

This Cleveland Plain Dealer article has a fairly detailed look at the story (the demonstration was the classic methanol flame/various salts experiment) and subsequent settlement. The details are gruesome and the teacher in question was grossly irresponsible, to say the least. (She paid a tragic price, in that her son was part of the permanently injured group.)

Like Jyllian, it seems to me that there are a lot of alcohol fires reported in school settings (as crudely measured by Jyllian's chemical safety roundups.) I wish I knew how I could help the situation; by putting this on YouTube, it seems like CSB has put their best foot forward.

There's a lot of great things that can come out of high school chemistry demonstrations. My high school chemistry teachers would put on the classic flame/explosion show (magnesium/dry ice, hydrogen balloons, they did a thermite reaction one year) and it was freakin' awesome. I loved it. They managed to do things the right way; they were fairly serious about safety (PPE for them, keeping us a fair distance away). In the case in the video, there wasn't an adequate enough amount of administrative supervision. There never is, I suppose.

How to prevent a Western Reserve-type accident (or another bugaboo, the exploding nitric acid waste bottle) from happening? I don't know, but I'd sure like to try. 


  1. The indifference of the school to the teacher's conduct re safety was very troubling.

  2. How to prevent it? I suppose you could have a teacher who isn't a complete idiot. Honestly there's worse things for us old lab rats to do than teach. At least someone who has actually gone through the whole grad-postdoc treadmill knows that chemicals can maim you if mishandled. I think methanol is a bit dodgy to have in a high school classroom anyway. It's just not flammable, but it also has toxic vapors. If your classroom has no hood, don't use it ever.

    How I teach the same thing - AQUEOUS solutions of salts, popsicle sticks for dipping, and a Bunsen flame. Colors are just as pretty and bright. Students are not permitted to participate if they're wearing anything obviously flammable - like, say, a polyester dress or jacket. Hair tied back. Goggles worn. Lab coats if available (not plastic aprons). Teach it as a technique in a lab. Have it available later as an option for, say, determining the mechanism of a displacement reaction - is that residue copper or aluminum? And NO methanol, no other flammable liquids. In fact, before you even start remove all flammable items from the work area. Paper towels? Move them. Hand sanitizer? Damn right, get that far away. Some idiot pouring methanol on a flame should be taking chemistry lab, not teaching it.

    1. I agree with your assessment of your version of the experiment as being "inherently safer." Perhaps the trick is advertising one version as "potentially unsafe" and another as "much safer"?

      As for the "no idiots" rule, we seem to have a problem regulating/legislating/planning for that one, as much as I would like to.

  3. According to Singer et al. in America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (2005), "35.7 percent of chemistry teachers lacked a major or minor in that field" and "even teachers who have majored in science may be limited in their ability to lead effective laboratory experiences, because their undergraduate science preparation provided only weak knowledge of science content and included only weak laboratory experiences."

    While the document speaks for itself, my (personal) take is this: All HS chemistry teachers major in EDUCATION, not chemistry. Whenever I get pushback on this observation (and I frequently do) I ask one simple question of the pusher: "Did you have two semesters of calculus based physical chemistry?" 100% of the time, the answer is "No." (Actually the answer is "No, but..." and an excuse is offered.)

    Simply put, our secondary school educators, and especially the new ones, are not getting the experience they need to handle hazardous materials safely. And, until they do get this experience, incidents will continue to happen.

    While the solution to the problem is simple, it won't be implemented. The Education community will not sacrifice their precious "teaching methods" or "psychology of the adolescent student" courses to force students to actually major (or minor) in the subject they are going to teach. They will continue to get a major such as "Chemistry for Teachers" or "Science for Teachers" instead of the experiences they need.

    What I am thankful for are those chemistry educators that are humble and say, "Hey, I have a minor in chemistry and I really don't know how to handle this stuff safely." There are a lot of these educators that I've met throughout my career and I am thankful for their teachable spirit.

    Regarding the ubiquitous self-destructing waste bottle: Implement a nitric acid management plan to prevent the problem. It's not that hard and it will prevent one from starring on the 6AM News with the captain of the hazmat team.

    1. Some of the best teachers I've had in my life were my undergrad professors who were thoroughly ignorant of education theory and had never taken an "education" course in their lives. They wouldn't be allowed to teach H.S. anywhere.

      I remember helping a younger neighbor kid with his chemistry homework when I was an undergrad chem major and he was still in high school. It was obvious the kid's teacher knew just enough chemistry to be dangerous; his worksheet was full of compounds like K4C or Na4Si that would be plausible to someone just learning the periodic table. This was at an expensive private school too, where you would think they'd have better teachers.

  4. Really? I almost became a high school teacher but chose to go to grad school instead. However, most of my classmates in the ed program were earning BA's in their major (chemistry, physics, math, etc) and a fair number like me completed BS degrees. It is pretty normal, in my experience, for secondary education to require a BA or BS in your major.

    Here is the course requirements at my undergrad university for a BA. It is nice to see that they have a 1-credit "Chemical Safety" course nowadays as well. I've never seen that before.

    That being said, a LOT of math and science teachers are teaching outside their major. Quite a few folks did this on purpose, earning a BA in something "easy" like history and just skimming by enough math or chemistry classes to qualify to teach it. In most cases, these folks wanted to teach history or English or whatever but knew jobs were tight, and were hoping their STEM minor would help. It often did.

    1. Chad,

      I just pulled the requirements for High School Chemistry teachers in IL. If I'm reading the right document ("Illinois Licensure Requirements and Content Endorsement Requirements, July 1, 2013") here are the minimum requirements:

      32 semester hours in science, 12 semester hours in Chemistry, coursework in 2 other science designations (including Biological Science), the Science – Chemistry (106) test; no upper division coursework required.

      Nowhere of which I am aware will 12 semester hours buy you even a minor. Physics/biology requirements are similar.

      Since license requirements vary state-to-state, our experiences may be vastly different. However, hearsay evidence from my colleagues in the chemical safety profession confirm my experience for an overwhelming majority of school systems.

      What is most disturbing to me in the IL requirements is the statement "no upper division coursework required." Just where on God's green earth does one get the most experience with hazardous materials? It will be the "upper division" labs: Qual organic, Analytical/Instrumental labs and P-Chem labs. As far as chemical safety and chemical safety experience goes, these types of minimum requirements are the secondary school equivalent of the blind leading the visually challenged.

      Does anyone here have a state-to-state comparison for course (or course level) requirements for secondary schools?

    2. These statistics are a bit old but the best I could find. I suspect the portion of teachers with BA/BS degrees in field has increased because the market has been flooded since the bust in 2008, and schools can be pickier.

      I agree that the minimums are too low (12 credits? yikes), but I doubt that had an impact in this case. A rich private school probably had a degree holder. It is poor rural and urban schools where the gym teacher is teaching chemistry.

      While I think safety should be part of the science curriculum, it should also be part of the education curriculum as well for those specializing in science education. Normally your last few ed classes involve student teaching, and there should be a specific safety element in this.

      In the end, though, it is about $$$. We don't pay science teachers enough to attract sufficient BA/BS holders.

    3. The relevant teacher in this case has a B.S. in chemistry from Wake Forest and a master's in science education from Boston College:

      While it seems to me that a safety component would be A Good Thing from a science education perspective, our ability to influence those curricula is low, I suspect.

  5. That is so breathtakingly stupid on the part of the teacher. Even in the 90's (20 years ago now ... :( ) our teachers used protective screens when doing flash-bang experiments. Nowadays there is a wealth of information and resources out there to help teachers do impressive chemistry demonstrations safely, this stuff simply isn't acceptable.

    That said, in my experience, school labs, due to lack of funding (and time) are usually the last adopters of the latest good lab safety practices. Schools in the UK were regularly using bunsen burners as heat sources for solvent-based chemistry well past the time that other labs had removed them.

    In the UK we have exactly the same problem with many science teachers teaching chemistry without any post-high school education in the subject (I don't regard the few weeks of 'conversion' course during teacher training as anywhere near the appropriate level of training, espcially is it contains very little lab time, if any). Teachers should be able to do good demonstrations in chemistry (as this seems to be a key component of inspiring students to study the subject further) but they need the training to do so or at least, if they don't have that training, the supervision of an experienced lab technician or other teacher.

    I think it is a great travesty of the education system here in the UK that the subjects of chemistry, physics and biology have been collapsed down into 'Science' for under 16's and the time spent on teaching is often reduced (from say three lessons to two a week). It sounds that the same is happening in the US. We simply should not accept this any longer. Why should English, History or Latin be taught as seperate subjects when individual sciences are not?

  6. As a former HS teacher, I can say that HS can be VERY stressful places for adults. While there are a few kids in a typical chemistry class that are genuinely interested in Chemistry, most that are there dont care (they may be required to take it) and there are always a few rotten kinds in the class that are the kind to play games, like pouring MeOH from a flask onto an open flame just to see what will happen. There are not to many adults who want to deal with this. It would be great if HS could attract better trained Chemistry teachers but what smart chemist would want to do that? IMO, the schools get the teachers they pay really can be a thankless task.

    BTW, since my lab appears to be losing funding, I will be teaching a Chem Lab in the local community college next semester, and have accepted I may have to return to HS teaching to make ends meet (I'm a 50 yr old research associate in an academic lab, and I think there is little chance of me finding a similar position at this point).

    Thanks for posting this about HS Chem safety, Chemjobber, and please feel free to post more about this.

  7. I taught HS chemistry for a year back in the late 80s, and NMH is spot on. Your most important skills as a teacher of any subject are classroom control and organization. Subject knowledge, whilst also important, comes after these two. When you're dealing with hazardous materials, this is particularly important. In this case, though, the incident seems to be entirely down to the breathtaking lack of safety awareness shown by the teacher. If I had done something like this, I'm pretty sure I would have been fired, and sued by the parents.
    Returning to NMHs comment: I agree. If you want to attract top-notch HS science teachers, who have the classroom and organizational skills, subject knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject, and, let's face it the physical stamina required to last an entire career in HS, you ought to be prepared to pay decent money. Right now, the financial incentive just isn't there. However, there's no excuse for such reckless disregard for safety, and my sympathies are entirely with the students in this case. Incidently, some of the comments on the Cleveland Plain Dealer article are insensitive beyond words.

    1. Even during my darkest days working in academic science ( I had a extremely bad post-doc advisor, for example) I ask myself this question: is it worse that High School teaching?

      The answer is always "no".

    2. I have a B.S. in Chemistry & 14 years experience as a Chemical Engineer. I am now teaching HS Chemistry and loving it.

      BTW - I do this lab with the students using aqueous solutions and whatever I feel like soaking them in (wood splints, q-tips, inoculation loops). I have almost 20 years of training in lab and industrial safety & I still feel the need to do substantial research on the safety of any new lab or demo!

      I have seen others do some scary things or just do kitchen chemistry. You can actually do a lot with water, baking soda, and vinegar.


    3. Hi, Kathryn:

      I'd love to talk to you about your experiences as a chemical engineer and a high school teacher.

      Want to talk? E-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

    4. I had the lab with HS students pressing aqueous salts onto a wire loop and then into the bunsen burner. That seemed to work well.

      Yesterday I went and filled out the paperwork to teach Chemistry at the community college across the street as an adjunct. I was required to watch a 25 minute CD on safety. The sound did not work on the CD. I went and told the person that I was filling out the paperwork about the problem the CD

      She said "Oh, dont worry about it".

      I think what is needed is for both administration (the Chem dept chair) and theteachers to be proactive about safety. Its easy for teachers to forget about this if nothing bad has ever happened.

  8. Agreed. That always used to be the question I asked myself (I left after a year because I didn't like the job and, let's just say the job didn't like me either!). These days, the question I ask myself is: is it worse than working for AMRI? The answer is always "hell no".

  9. Anybody know anything about this fire at a Manhattan high school? Sounds like a similar incident.

  10. This seems like something the ACS could help with. I'm imagining an ACS approved curriculum covering all the topics one would expect in HS chem with accompanying labs. Post it online and advertise it at education conferences. It wouldn't be as good as have trained chemists teaching, but surely it would be better than the patchwork we get now. My HS teacher has an MS and I think she went back and got a PhD eventually.