Experts: Little oversight of class labs in Minn.

Published 11:42 am Monday, December 12, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — A science demonstration that went bad in a Maple Grove middle school this month has drawn attention to the fact that there’s little official oversight of experiments in classroom labs.

Four students were burned, including one seriously, when a teacher poured a small amount of methanol, or wood alcohol, into a 5-gallon plastic jug and ignited the fumes, causing a fire larger than he expected. The teacher has been put on leave while the accident is investigated.

The “whoosh bottle” demonstration, as it’s commonly known, shows up several times in one national database of lab accidents.

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And the National Science Teachers Association’s guidelines on lab safety discourage the use of methanol in such a way because of its volatility.

But those guidelines are little more than suggestions. And John Olson, the science specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education, said there are no state codes for classroom science demonstrations, nor any state-level auditing to make sure school districts enforce any guidelines they adopt from the science teachers association and similar groups.

“It’s pretty much voluntary at this point,” he said. “There’s not anybody who comes around and looks at instruction practices.”