Are Some Science Educators Playing with Fire? When Does Sharing an Experiment Cross a Line?
I am frustrated. As our children grow up, they want to experiment. Explore. Discover. The internet is a wonderful tool to use in their education and growing independence. Growing up, I had to use encyclopedias, libraries, books. Now, everything is at our children’s fingertips. We all know dangers exist on the internet. Today’s kids have to learn how to navigate through the dangers and decipher the pitfalls. But what about when they are researching and learning? What if they are on a website aimed at children and their education? Will they recognize the dangers?
We get numerous requests to share how Steve does the Exploding Pumpkin demonstration. He is very clear that it is a demonstration, not an experiment, and does not give the chemicals or the instructions on how to do it yourself at home. It isn’t a magic trick or a secret. It is dangerous for children.
With knowledge comes power and with power comes responsibility.
Chemistry can be dangerous… and explosive. Mixing chemicals, discovering the flammable elements, and playing with fire; no wonder chemistry also involves safety goggles, hot pads, lab coats and eye wash. Chemistry can also be cool. Making things explode, ignite and react is exciting. And tempting.
That is why chemistry teachers share demonstrations in a controlled, safe environment.
My husband shared stories with me last night about how he experimented with gun powder and fireworks in his youth. He has the burns to prove it. My cousin burned his hand attempting to throw a firework when we were young. Even though we teach them not to, kids are going to play with fire.
Today, I love to see all of the science shows, science channels, science websites, science educators and science talk. But science isn’t just a bunch of explosions and flames.
The internet is currently full of science enthusiasts. Science is buzzing, which is a great thing, except with that buzz comes a lot of imitators and people jumping on the bandwagon.
Just because you know how to make homemade fireworks and fuses, breathe fire, juggle fire or have 4 ways to start a chemical fire without the use of matches, does not mean you should share it. Especially on a blog that is geared towards children and their parents.
And no, a disclaimer at the bottom stating “Wear proper safety gear and work on a fire-safe surface” does not remove your responsibility if someone is hurt. Giving out a recipe for a chemical fire that includes sugar and sulfuric acid is not the responsible act of a science educator.
My dad was a chemist and my brother currently works in a lab. They both have burn scars from chemicals. Some chemicals, like sulfuric acid, will burn through jeans. Just the fumes from some chemicals can burn sinuses. This is not child’s play. Even the pros get hurt.
As a mother, it makes me shudder to think there are children who are finding science lessons online and learning how to scrape match heads with a screw driver to add to a fireworks mixture. That isn’t science education and those are certainly not proper hands-on science experiments for children. We (parents, teachers, online educators) all need to teach our children how to not only dig deeper and explore science but also to respect it. There is so much more to science and chemistry behind just the big boom.
The inexperienced science educator can easily fall into the trap that bigger is better. Bigger fire, bigger boom, bigger audience. But that is not true. One of our most popular experiments is Color Changing Milk. It’s simple, it’s safe and it’s science.
Steve’s Mentos and Diet Coke experiment went viral because it was safe, okay for kids to do and had a wow factor. Not everything has to catch on fire to be cool.
I have a request to all science educators – please be responsible with what you share with all of our children. They have plenty of resources and creativity to get into trouble. They do not need to find recipes for disaster next to recipes for bubble solution. Don’t aim for more page views, buzz or content at the expense of having a child get hurt.
The explosions are cool, but safe learning is where it’s at.
It would completely freak me out to take on a science experiment on my own!
I swear I am always telling my girls, if I don’t know the answer about something which is quite often – go search the internet. It’s so EASY compared to the mounds of books we had to pour through!
I agree 100%. Too many teachers somehow feel the need to impress their students with a lot of flash-bang stuff, neglecting the principles behind them. Kids do enjoy the dramatic stuff, but they really enjoy the simple, slightly wacky, seemingly impossible little challenges or tricks that can truly demonstrate the lessons – without risking anyone’s safety. And those simple experiments tend to be more budget-friendly as well!
This is a point I have been trying to make at a Central European science center, where I have been working for the last four months. Coming from the UK, where no demonstration is performed in front of an audience before being rigorously risk-assessed, I was shocked on arrival to see how many presenters were nonchalantly pouring hazardous chemicals without taking a few seconds to put on gloves and safety glasses beforehand, and even igniting methane bubbles on children’s hands.
When we do science demonstrations we are, of course, showing our audiences that science is exciting and interesting, but we also have a responsibility to encourage safe practice and discourage reckless behaviour. So, science educators: by all means, use demos to illustrate your point and to spice up your show, but be aware of your audience. Children tend to copy what they see, so make sure that what they see is safe for them as well as for yourself.
This is a terrific post and as a mom of 3 kids, I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for focusing on safe science for kids. Its why we keep coming back to the Steve Spangler site again and again whenever we need science and science fair ideas and equipment!
Thank you for your comments everyone. The booms are an exciting part of science but safety is of ultimate importance. Our children need to learn proper safety and when to recognize when something has gone to far. Safe science is the best kind of science.