Pretty colors & dangerous fire in a chem experiment

A chemistry teacher, certified to teach chemistry in grades 7 through 12 by the licensing authority of the state of New York, was cited for eight violations of fire code after performing an experiment under unsafe conditions that caused an explosion and third-degree burns to one of her students, the New York Times reports. The boy was in critical condition as of Friday at a Manhattan hospital.

Closely monitored rainbow flame 5th-grade demo
(Reactions are different from the New York case.)

Anna Poole, a young science teacher at New York’s Beacon High School known for safety consciousness, according to the paper, was performing the so-called “rainbow flame” demonstration, which uses methanol to burn different metals, producing flames of several different colors based on the electron configurations of the metals. The experiment was recently part of a safety campaign by the United States Chemical Safety Board. A video that accompanies this campaign, featuring a woman who was burned over 40 percent of her body several years ago, can be found from links on the page here.

Safety citations reveal a pattern of neglect and wanton disregard for the safety of teachers and students. Among other things, the school has been ordered to reduce the supply of hazardous chemicals to the amounts allowed by law, including no more than 15 gallons of flammable liquids and no more than five pounds of toxic substances. The school was also ordered to provide a safety shower and eye wash for decontamination in a science lab classroom and show that a chemical fume hood there was being tested annually for safe ventilation of dangerous fumes.

This oversight or negligence means the teacher wasn’t qualified to do this demonstration and may not be aware of the Material Safety Data Sheet for the methanol she used near an open flame a few feet away from students.

To see a video of people who know what they’re doing, consider the Christmas lectures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I attended all four of these spectacular shows of the Wow factor in chemistry when I attended the school as an undergraduate, and I must say, the tradition of Wow continues to this day, except that more than one person is on stage during the recent shows. A sample from 2008 can be seen in the video, here.

I would also point out that (a) many safer experiments exist to wow students about the wonderful colors that can be created with chemical reactions, and (b) there are videos of many dangerous demonstrations available on the Internet that students can watch and stay safely away from the danger:

Some schools emphasize the hiring of young, fun, popular teachers to make learning “fun” for students. Although I’m all for “fun” in learning, many of these teachers are not particularly qualified in the academic areas they teach.

Nobody can defend Ms Poole’s actions of pouring methanol near an open flame a few feet away from children. A qualified teacher of chemistry doesn’t pour methanol from a jug over a fire to get their students all excited about how “cool” chemistry is.

Our prayers go to the young boy who was badly injured and remains in critical condition as a result of this travesty and to his family.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.