First, Do No Harm

Another school year already brings us another notable classroom chemistry accident. Once again, “the Rainbow Experiment” has claimed victims, this time at a high school in Virginia. After 30 years of teaching science, including 28 years of teaching chemistry, I am done “playing nice” on the subject of safety. Let me start by saying that the “Rainbow Experiment” is not an experiment. It is a demonstration. Demonstrations are not experiments.

Now, the real venting begins…

Our college science degree programs do not teach the information and practices necessary to equip a teacher with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform safe demonstrations and organize safe laboratory work. Likewise, teaching credential programs altogether omit chemical hygiene as a topic of instruction. As a result, schools are hiring legions of science teachers with widely varying degrees of expertise or ignorance on the most crucial topic of ANY school – how to keep students safe. Thats right, administrators – the most important role of a school is to keep students safe, or as doctors would say, “First, do no harm.” True, parents want their students to learn Chemistry, Biology, English, and History. But first, and most importantly, they want them to return home at the end of the day alive, and without injury and disfigurement.

Every science teacher needs to understand the fundamentals of chemical storage and inventory. They need to be competent at planning laboratory activity that minimizes the risk of injury and exposure to toxins, mutagens and carcinogens. They also need to understand the laws relating to disposal of chemicals in order to keep the community safe and reduce the exposure of the school to financial penalties.

Given that not all science majors will become teachers, it seems unreasonable to lay the responsibility for training teachers at the feet of our university degree programs for science majors. I’m not letting universities off the hook all together. All science majors need to be exposed to a rigorous set of expectations regarding safe practices, and it is clear that many universities only put these practices in place in response to accidents, when they are compelled to do so by legal action.

Clearly, credential programs bear a responsibility to train future science teachers in the maintenance of safe science classrooms. Unfortunately, I have never spoken to a teacher who received any such formal, sanctioned training while obtaining their credential. Credential programs seem to be completely focused on the latest trends in teaching. Teachers are inundated with educational theories that will be toppled and replaced three or more times during a long career. Some proto-teachers may benefit from a master teacher who shares safety tips – a completely random and unreliable approach to keeping students safe. Student teachers are more fearful of the observations and evaluations that measure their “buy-in”  to the latest educational fancy than they are of the risk of a student being injured.

Teachers in my district are not supposed to show movies to students without the prior approval of an administrator. Violations of the rule can result in disciplinary action. Clearly, we don’t want to run the risk that a student goes home and tells Mom and Dad that they heard a bad word in class, or saw an uncovered body part in an unsanctioned movie clip. Yet, I could go to work on Monday and pull out the methanol from the flammables cabinet and perform the SAME rainbow disaster, and there is nothing to stop me. Do I want administrators two feet up my colon? No. Very few are qualified to serve as trainers or gatekeepers for what is risky in the science classroom. I think that this training is best provided by people with actual experience – qualified fellow teachers. In some cases, that is a grizzled veteran. In others, as in another high school in my district, it is the brilliant young gun with the right degree, training, and attitude.

The PLC movement has swept through schools as fast as a methanol fire. Science PLC’s should be taking time to share the activities that we have planned for the near future, and to discuss safety, risks, precautions and alternatives. There have to be “gatekeepers” who have the authority to say “No” to  risky activities. Several years ago, I saw a new teacher from a nearby high school a few days before he was about to begin his first year as a teacher. A biology major, he was working hard to prepare to teach chemistry and AP Chemistry. We had worked together over the summer, and we ran into each other at a big district training on the work of PLC’s. He informed me that he was planning to blow up sodium in water on the first day of class to “get the kids excited about chemistry.” So, what is more important than the data-driven work of the PLC? What is more important than improving student learning outcomes? Simple – keeping students safe is more important. I directed him to and told him that he was better off showing the video, as well as leaving the reactivity of sodium to a place in the curriculum where it would be more than a magic show.

I have no doubt that Woodson High School in Virginia will soon have a comprehensive chemical hygiene plan with extensive, classroom focused safety training. The injuries to students and a teacher are a terribly high price to pay for a program that should be in place at every school. Throw in the cost of the ensuing lawsuits, and it is hard to see how schools can continue to turn a blind eye to the potential disaster lurking in so many science classrooms. Unfortunately, we are in an era when classroom visits are directed toward examining the posted lesson objectives and academic vocabulary. So, in the interest of being obedient to the latest trend, here is a lesson objective:

  • Students will be kept alive and unharmed while in my classroom


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Andy Allan

I am the owner-developer of and a science teacher at El Diamante High School in Visalia, CA.