Four 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.