DURHAM, N.C. — In New Berlin, Wis., a giant fireball singes a teacher and eight students during a science experiment. In Tulsa, Okla., a mixture of potassium chlorate and sulfur rips away a counter and injures five. And in a classroom in Hyrum, Utah, glass flies when a jug of methanol explodes.
As these recent incidents bear out, teenagers and chemicals can be a volatile mix. That hasn't stopped educators from advocating more hands-on experiments to make science more attractive to students. But in the midst of state budget cuts, overcrowded classrooms, and the threat of parental lawsuits, keeping science both interesting and safe is no easy feat.
Utah, North Carolina, and a number of other states have decided to update their classroom codes and hire safety experts to instruct teachers. But experts say that hundreds of American public schools still have lax enforcement of safety rules and many even lack basic protections such as safety goggles and working chemical exhaust hoods.
A recent safety study conducted in 10 states by researchers at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, shows that labs have become overcrowded. Thirty-two percent of science classrooms did not have eye-wash stations, and 18 percent did not have enough protective goggles for all students. About 46 percent of teachers said they've never received science safety training.
Studies and anecdotal evidence point to a rise in lab accidents in recent years. This can't be blamed on the new direction of science teaching, says Michigan State University professor James Gallagher, who helped write national science-teaching standards in 1996. But, he adds, "we clearly need to provide some instruction on how to design and implement activities that are safe for kids."
Some labs would need to be completely overhauled to be fit for 21st-century science. Before the recent renovation of their science wing, chemistry and biology teachers at Raleigh's Broughton High School had to make do with lab technology dating back to 1927. At rural schools, science budgets are sometimes hardly big enough to cover the cost of preserved perch for the midterm dissection exam.
"I've been to schools way out in the country where the science budget is $500 a year," says Fred Byers, a retired teacher who now sells safety equipment for Fisher Scientific. "Is that enough to make sure there's enough safety goggles in the room? Not in my book."
What some students fear most is not the lab setup but their fellow students, according to a recent study by the Clinton Scientific Trust. "One of the main dangers in the lab is silly people," one student said in the survey.
In Madison, Wis., one such student took the antics outside the lab. He stole a flask of mercury from a teacher's desk and poured it into the finger holes of bowling balls at the local alley, creating a mess that cost nearly $250,000 to clean up. A judge ordered the boy and his parents to reimburse that money.
Many science teachers hold back on experiments because of pressure from school officials who fear lawsuits. In Iowa, according to Drake researchers, accidents doubled and lawsuits tripled between 1993 and '96.
At one Michigan school, administrators - in a move that some say amounted to "scientific illiteracy" - drew the blinds during a total eclipse of the sun, not allowing students to see it because of the "bad light" that could damage their eyes. While damage can indeed stem from improper viewing of an eclipse, Mr. Gallagher says eclipses can be viewed safely, and they provide magnificent teaching moments.
Mike Williams, a middle school teacher from Lee County, N.C., says he recently stayed away from a heredity experiment after a colleague warned him about taking blood from students.
"Principals tell us to make sure we don't get sued, yet the state wants us to do more hands-on science," Mr. Williams says. He's considering doing the experiment with "synthetic blood."
Jack Gerlovich, a chemistry professor at Drake, has been on a safety crusade for nearly two decades. While science teachers are generally the most safety-conscious people in a school, he says, "when accidents do happen [in labs], they tend to be catastrophic." But his crusade is not aimed at limiting hands-on chemistry, which, he agrees, "is the kind of learning that students remember the rest of their lives."
At an old Durham elementary school where the district now holds seminars and job fairs, Gerlovich recently led a group of science teachers through a variety of scenarios: He showed a picture of a chemistry exhaust vent that should be moved away from the air-conditioning intake; he gave instructions on keeping eyewash stations uncluttered. When he asked questions about state safety codes, many teachers either didn't know the answers or were too shy to speak up.
The teachers also saw a demo of a new "ventless" exhaust hood that uses filters to neutralize smoke and pollutants. Former science teacher Linda Stroud, wearing proper goggles and an apron, dropped a Gummi Bear into a tube of boiling potassium chlorate. Everyone knew what would happen next: The sugar in the bear reacted with the chemical to create a fireworks show in the test tube. The $3,500 hood neatly sucked up all the smoke.
Gerlovich's eyes miss nothing when it comes to safety details. Poking around for unsafe science has made him a kind of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" in reverse. His sideline career as a safety consultant began with a deal he struck with another chemistry teacher in Iowa in the early 1980s. He was a "safety hazard," Gerlovich says, prone to keeping chemicals too long and having a messy classroom. He agreed to abide by specific improvements Gerlovich suggested, and only then did Gerlovich let his teenage daughter attend his class.
In lieu of having a stickler for safety as a neighbor, the least teachers can do, Gerlovich says, is restrict the most dangerous experiments to classroom presentations.
And "document, document, document." Many judges are willing to make students responsible for their own scientific misdeeds - as long as teachers can prove that reasonable safety measures were taken.