Late in their junior year and into the first two months of their senior year, chemistry majors at Willamette write and submit a research proposal. Shortly before entering the lab for their thesis work, I lead this activity that takes place in our Senior Projects seminar class. The class meets one hour per week and we cover topics such as how to write an effective grant proposal, ethics in science, presenting data, etc., as well as this safety activity. This exercise is a little different from the lab-specific safety training that they receive in all of their lab courses and the direct training they get from research supervisors for those who have already done research in previous years and/or during the summer. Rather than going through best practices, it gives them an eye-opening "worst case scenario" exposure to what can happen--or better stated HAS happened--in an academic lab setting.
I distribute the assignment to the students about a week in advance of carrying out Part 1 of the activity, assigning each group of 3-4 students a specific lab accident that has appeared in the news over the past few years, all of which I'm sure you all know well. Each student group creates a mini-presentation of their assigned accident, giving a synopsis of what occurred along with an analysis and leading a class discussion as per the prompts in the assignment.
In Part 2, students work individually to assess MSDS for chemicals they will be using in their own thesis research projects. This part of the activity allows them to imagine "what could go wrong" with their research protocols and think through "what would I do if...?". This portion of the assignment is done outside of class and is turned in later.
While this assignment is not meant to replace hands-on safety training in a research lab, I have found it to be a powerful exercise based on my own observations. Students pay close attention to the presentations and are thoughtfully engaged in the discussions about these awful accidents that have happened to other students in the scientific community.
To appreciate the seriousness of failing to adhere to safety practices by learning from others' mistakes.
To assess potential dangers in a student's own research project.
Part 1: I give them the assignment a week in advance so that they can meet in groups to prepare for the presentation/discussion.
Part 2: They work on this part individually and turn it in later, after the presentation day.
There is no formal evaluation. I observe the students in class during the presentations, both as presenters and as participants and note their engagement.
Students are fully engaged. They react in a variety of ways, some serious, some mortified. The fact that the accidents happened to other students in academic research labs seems to be key to their interest and acknowledgement of "it could happen to me".