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Lab safety - beyond goggles

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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.

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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.