My eldest son was describing his school science class to me. He told me how frustrated his science teacher is, because Health & Safety guidelines have resulted in the removal of many substances from the school. Teachers cannot demonstrate many of the bread and butter experiments any more because they are too dangerous. Bunsen Burners are being removed and replaced with hot plates. Sodium and Potassium have been taken off the experiments list – way too dangerous. And forget phosphorous.
For many years in Ireland the study of science was in decline. The government of Ireland made science education a priority. We want kids to study science. We want them to experiment and to have fun and to get excited about the subject. At the same time the Health & Safety gremlins want to make sure that our kids are not boiled in acid, blinded by explosions, scorched by naked gas flames, gassed by toxic fumes or knocked out with chloroform. The problem here is that the H&S gremlins always win the argument. There is no reasoned debate. If you ask “how many kids were actually harmed in school experiments in the last 12 months” they will not answer. They work on the basis of risk assessment, not risk fact, or risk history, or reported incidents. This is a problem for the teaching of science in schools,and in universities.
Science involves pushing the boundaries of what is now possible. Science is about doing risky things. If we let H&S take over the world then we can say bye bye to any new breakthrough discoveries. The minute I start to talk like this the H&S gremlins roll out their big guns.
Insurance. If you don’t listen to the gremlins, they warn that the Insurance costs will skyrocket. Even worse, they warn, we will be open to claims of liability.
The very fact that H&S have raised a risk means that we automatically become liable to that risk in a way we never were before. Just imagine, little Johnny is in class carrying out a titration experiment. The teacher warns the class not to boil the alcohol. Johnny thinks this is funny and turns up the heat. The alcohol boils and ignites. There is a relatively harmless flash which removes Johnnies eyebrows, much to the amusement of the class.
Mommy is not laughing. He was scheduled for a set of head-shots for a modelling job. She sues the school. Her bottom feeding pond sucking scum lawyer knows exactly what to look for. He unearths the minutes of a school meeting where the Health and Safety officer expressed concern that bunsen burners in the hands of children were a danger. The school did not remove them. QED, the school is at fault. Case closed. Now, if H&S had never reported the risk, the liability of the school would have been lessened.
My own take on all this is simple. I want my kids to learn science properly. I want them to engage in experimentation. I am prepared to sign a liability waiver as a condition of my child taking part in potentially dangerous experiments. If little Johnnies Mommy is not prepared to sign the waiver I am quite happy to see little Johnny study something less dangerous instead.
Art? No, chisels are too dangerous. Technical drawing? No, compasses are pointy. Music? No, drumsticks, violin bows, breaking strings, risk of deafness from Cymbal crashing. Home economics? Sewing needles, knives, scissors, hot cooking plates, no way. Religion. That should be OK. Nobody dies because of religion. Do they? Problem is, how is Mommy going to protect little Johnny from himself, and from getting his heart broken by a girl, and from his personal failures, and his nasty boss, and from the random vagaries of the world?
Chemistry Experiment; by Bart Edelman
We listened intently to the professor,
Followed each one of her instructions,
Read through the textbook twice,
Wore lab coats and safety goggles,
Mixed the perfect chemical combinations
In the proper amount and order.
We thought we were a complete success.
And then the flash of light,
The loud, perplexing explosion,
The black rope of smoke,
Rising freely above our singed hair.
Someone in another lab down the hallway
Phoned the local fire department
Which arrived lickety-split
With the hazardous waste crew,
And they assessed the accident,
Deciding we were out of danger.
It was the talk of the campus,
For many weeks afterwords.
We, However, became so disillusioned
That we immediately dropped the course
And slowly retreated from each other.
The very idea we could have done
More damage than we actually did–
Blown ourselves up and the building
From the base of its foundation–
Shook us, like nothing had before.
And even now, years later,
When anyone still asks about you,
I get this sick feeling in my stomach
And wonder what really happened
To all the elementary matter.