By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern, with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8
Inquiry science naturally lends itself to experiments and hands-on activities, which are excellent ways to engage your students and fire their natural curiosity. However, teachers must ensure that curiosity is the only thing being ignited. From chemicals to sharps to heat, the science lab can be a dangerous place if handled improperly. Students and teachers share the responsibility of maintaining a safe environment.
Here, we’ve taken five basic safety guidelines given to students—the ones that, hopefully, are common sense—and turned them around to focus on what the teacher can do in relation to that theme. We take each topic one step further to discuss elements of lab safety that teachers may not have considered but would do well to remember.
1. Simple standard for students: Read the directions.
Top tip for teachers: Offer demonstrations, not just activity sheets.
Especially for visual learners who need to see something to understand it, a long list of directions on a page might be meaningless, and students may skip them or accidentally omit steps. Remind students to read directions, but, especially in activities with potentially hazardous materials, consider demonstrating at least part of the activity yourself so that young scientists have an idea of what it’s “supposed” to look like.
2. Simple standard for students: Wear your safety goggles.
Top tip for teachers: Remember that goggles aren’t just for chemical activities.
It’s easy to see why goggles are necessary for labs with dangerous chemicals or flames. But goggles also protect your students’ eyes from flying projectiles, such as rubber bands, which often appear in elementary school labs. Set a good example for your students by wearing your goggles even in nonchemical labs, and keep them on throughout the entire activity.
3. Simple standard for students: Be careful with sharp items.
Top tip for teachers: Precut materials so that students don’t have to handle sharp tools.
Cuts are the most common science classroom injury. There are times when the cutting process is an integral part of the lab activity, but whenever possible, eliminate the possibility of injury by doing the cutting yourself beforehand. It saves you stress and saves your students time, and it also reduces wasted material if students fail to “measure twice, cut once.”
4. Simple standard for students: Keep your hair and clothes tied back.
Top tip for teachers: Ditch the acrylic nails.
From long hair to flip-flops, there’s a long list of personal grooming no-no’s for the science classroom. But here’s one you may not have considered: acrylic nails, whether store-bought or professionally applied, are extremely flammable. In one study, a woman sustained serious burns to her thumb when her cigarette ignited her acrylic nail, resulting in permanent damage. Moral of the story: make your students aware, especially around homecoming and prom, and remind them to keep their nails short and natural. And, of course, do the same with your own.
5. Simple standard for students: Clean up your work station.
Top tip for teachers: Allow adequate time for cleanup.
Trying to cram an hour-long experiment into a 45-minute class period leaves students scrambling to complete the activities as the late bell rings, with no time for cleanup. That’s when students start rushing … and that’s when accidents happen. It’s absolutely the students’ responsibility to clean up properly, but it’s on you to give them enough time to get it done. Be realistic about what you can complete during one class.
Which of these tips will you implement to create a safer science classroom?