Submitted by Sheila Smith / University of Michigan- Dearborn on Thu, 03/02/2017 - 13:49

How many of us have cringed at the basic lack of chemical knowledge on display on your friend's Facebook page?

What is our responsibility to teach in these circumstances?  Maybe none at all.  This is a social space after all.  

But in our classrooms and teaching labs, our responsibility is different.  

How do we teach our students to be safety conscious without teaching them to be fearful?

In my last blog post, I introduced a video by the Chemical Safety Board that, while very well done, has the potential to scare; in truth, that's where its power comes from.  

But while I want my students to take safety seriously, I also want them to be willing to experiment.  I want my students to understand when they must wear gloves and when it's safe for them to handle things with bare hands.  I want them to understand that 0.1 M HCl is not the same hazard hazard level as conc. HCl.

In my opinion it all comes down to a question of critical thinking skills.  This used to be the place where laboratories really shined. Unfortunately,  recently I've noticed a trend in our general chemistry courses to explicitly instruct students as to every micro-step that is required to successfully replicate an experiment.  We've taken the critical thinking out of the course.  In an effort to cover our collective rear-ends, all we teach freshmen today is that chemicals, all chemicals, are unsafe and scary, and that we should never handle them outside of a controlled environment.  

I know, I know.... You kids get off my lawn!  But really, are we doing our students a disservice?  It's one thing to say we'll teach the chem majors about chemical safety later in a more advanced course, but for most of our freshmen, genchem may be their only exposure to chemical safety literacy.  

So what do you think?  Have we swung too far to one side on chemical safety?  Not far enough?  

And how do we change the way we're teaching safety to become more responsive and responsible?