Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Methanol flame incident injures 12 preschool children in Houston

Via Twitter and elsewhere, this bad news, covered by KTRK's Miya Shay and Tom Abrahams:
Several children were injured at a school on the west side after a science experiment gone wrong. 
The accident happened at Yellow School - Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church just after noon. 
According to the Memorial City Fire Department, preschool students at the 240 block of Blalock Road were conducting some type of science experiment outside when a flash blast occurred. 
Of the 12 students who were injured, 11 of them suffered burns, one student was trampled and six of them were taken to the hospital. All of the students are 3 years old, a fire official said.
This quote is basically diagnostic of methanol-related flame incidents in schools:
As parents and grandparents picked up children who were not injured, some of the kids told Eyewitness News that they were involved in some type of color-changing fire experiment. 
"Fire was changing colors and the last one wasn't working, so we put it a little bit more, and then it exploded," said Kate Earnest, a 5-year-old who was part of the group that participated in the experiment. "That's how the other kids got burned, and they were crying."
It's the classic formula for a methanol-flame incident around children, with the combination of:
  • fire
  • methanol being added to the (usually dying/invisible) flames
  • from a bulk methanol container with
  • students being too close 
that has caused injuries and teachers getting fired and lawsuits being filed and settlements being paid in this country time and time again. 

Another reminder that the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemical Safety specifically asks teachers to "Stop Using the Rainbow Demonstration." 

17 comments:

  1. It's possible to safely perform methanol flame demonstrations, so I don't support a complete ban on them. However, incompetence can be disastrous, and there should be more awareness of the risks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It. Is. Not. Worth. It.

      At this point, I can't possibly understand out why seeing a flame change colors is so educational, especially for 3-year-olds. Grow some crystals or something that's equally cool but doesn't leave people disfigured if it goes wrong. Nobody is walking away with some deep understanding of electronic transitions after seeing the demonstration. It's only performed because it's flashy, and how.

      Delete
    2. Or pre-prepare the sticks with salts and methanol on sticks, let them dry, and light them up. If you want to impress students with flame colors, you ought to be willing to prepare samples ahead of time. You could also do flame samples with loops and solid, no? That wouldn't require solvent at all.

      The rainbow demo, like everything else has costs and benefits, and the benefits seem to be too low for the costs. It's too easy to do it unsafely and without sufficient forethought. (Would you be pouring gasoline in the middle of a room of preschoolers with an open flame?) Chemistry in experiential, so shunning demos is bad, but since most chemists aren't walking around with large areas of burns or missing eyes (at least now), there have to be interesting demos that don't involve setting your class on fire.

      Delete
  2. What educational value could preschoolers derive from the rainbow demo? This is inexcusable.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The root cause of this is that all of the upper-level chemistry courses got removed from the high-school chemistry teacher track to make room for all the education theory courses that are now required.

    The experience of being a TA in grad school forced me to brush up on my fundamentals. Not being able to give a good answer to some kid's basic question revealed the gaps in my own understanding. I just don't see any way that someone who only had a year of gen chem, a year of O-chem, and a bunch of education courses could do much more than parrot what the textbook says.

    I think it's a shame that the current crop of high school teachers has gotten such a cursory education in the fundamentals that it's now considered unsafe for them to handle anything more dangerous than food coloring and baking soda.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Before anyone says it, I'm aware that this particular case was a preschool, but the recent rash of rainbow flame demo incidents almost always involved high school chemistry teachers.

      Delete
    2. Having gotten my education degree in Pennsylvania I can say that we took all of the core chemistry classes that chemistry majors took, up through 400 level. The only thing lacking was that we didn't have to take extra chemistry electives.

      Delete
    3. Not all of us. I'm a former eternal-postdoc and teaching is my second career. Most of the science department at my school are people who used to work in science, and have science degrees. It took me a while to get into the school I'm in: yes, there are a lot of schools that prefer to hire people with ed degrees, but not all of them are so prejudiced.

      Delete
    4. OldLabRat, my response was meant to disagree with KT's statement that " all of the upper-level chemistry courses got removed from the high-school chemistry teacher track". This is not true, at least in PA. We took all the same core classes as chemistry majors, up through 2 semesters of P-chem.

      Delete
    5. I grew up and went to undergrad in PA too. My alma mater had 4 tracks for chemistry majors - ACS certified, non-ACS-certified, high school teaching, and pre-med. I remember reading the requirements for each, and being horrified at how stripped-down the high school teacher track was. I also remember helping my brother and a neighbor kid with their high school chemistry homework when I was an undergrad, and seeing both of their teachers make the kind of mistakes that would be expected of someone with 1-2 years of college chemistry - worksheets with "ionic compounds" like K4C or Na5B that would be plausible to someone who hasn't taken chemistry past the 100 level.

      If you had upper-level courses as an undergrad on the high school teacher track, I suspect it was because your alma mater had rigorous standards, not the state.

      Delete
    6. I dont think upper education courses will solve this problem, because the ones I took never mentioned "practical chemistry" (ie MeOH can explode), but were all advanced problem solving (eg E1cb mechanism).

      Not sure how to solve this problem, except that all Chem HS ad CC college teachers are required to take a seminar on Demo safety run by the state, before they teach. Maybe for each class taught (at CC it maybe an Org class) have a required state-run seminar

      Delete
  4. Where's the "It always worked well before..." quote? I love hearing that whenever some idiot sets his or her class ablaze.

    It's also pretty sad that certain chemists feel that they have to light something on fire or blow something up to get attention.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm still mystified at how this idiotic demo became part of the standard repertoire. Shakhashiri? But most of these teachers wouldn't know Shakhashiri's name. I wonder if this is somehow being taught in ed schools. Where do chemistry lab activities come from? I've been teaching a few years now and I still don't know. Maybe it's Youtube inspiring some of these teachers these days?

    ReplyDelete
  6. You used to see that kind of accident with random types trying to light their grill with gasoline when the #$#@ charcoal fails to light and they pour more gasoline on. But you don't hear about that any longer, now it's only stupid schoolteachers lighting themselves on fire. Darwin in action, or something.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am baffled as to why anyone thought it would be okay to perform this experiment to an audience of pre-schoolers, let alone get the authority to do so, in these litigious times.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I am loathe to call this an experiment, it's a demo. But I agree that for pre-schoolers there is really no point to doing this that could possibly outweigh the risks. I'd not even do the version using a wire loop and aqueous salt solutions with children that young. Salt crystals, baking soda volcano, maybe cabbage pH indicator...but MeOH & open flame is a bad call in any educational setting.

    I think the real issue, though, is that the UG chemistry curriculum is woefully inadequate when it comes to practical, hands-on skills. Gen Chem lab is largely a hilarious joke with experiments like "make some AuNPs with citrate" or "use a spectroscope to observe an emission spectrum." O-chem isn't a ton better, and even the upper-division labs don't really cover too much that's practical from a safety or lab skills perspective. The most useful class I had in terms of practical skills was Instrumental Analysis, and that's a 400-level majors course. As a UG you don't really get any kind of practical knowledge about how to safely work in a lab setting unless you do substantial research. Most of the students who are doing substantial UG research usually don't become K-12 educators, they get jobs as chemists or go to grad school. Aside from that just making demos dangerous, it does a disservice to k-12 students that their teachers don't have a solid enough background. I think it's something we need to address at the UG curriculum, but damned if I know how.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pay teachers more, and some of those students will teach K-12 instead of taking a chemist job. I considered it, but couldn't justify an extra year of certification for half the starting salary I would make as a BS-level chemist.

      Delete