CLEARS things up

One of the things ‘going on’ this academic year is a project investigating safety in the laboratory. We’re not trying to come up with better lab rules, I think that’s one of the biggest differences. We all comment that in the chemistry lab students (and sometimes staff) do very bizarre things, but more lab rules don’t seem to make a different to the number of things like that which occur. In first year, it makes sense to have a clear set of lab rules. Following them should allow the students to work in comparative safety, learn how to complete risk assessments but also learn how to be in the lab and how to do experiments. If you include full risk assessments on top of a standard diet of first year experiments, the cognitive demand is sky high.

Rules have their place and provide adequate baseline for behaviour in a lab environment. They also aid compliance with various legislative aspects of health and safety. Rules inhibit learning to think about lab safety in a more creative and adaptable way: rules inhibit learning about safety. In most academic subjects we’ve moved away from rote learning approaches, favouring more interactive, problem based learning approaches. Why then do we think that learning and applying a set of rules largely without thought is an appropriate approach to learning about laboratory safety.

In second years, students are expected to take on a little more responsibility for working safely: the techniques they use are more advanced, the chemicals have greater risks associated with them and need more specialised precautions. We may move from a lab full of students working on one experiment to a rota system where students may be working on one of 5 experiments at a time. The experiments have still been risk assessed by staff before deployment. The students do have to be more adaptable in assessing risk, but the rules don’t generally change between first and second year.

By third year, students are embarking on independent research projects and the responsibility for completing risk assessments falls on their shoulders. They have to complete COSHH forms of some description, and often having learned in 1st and 2nd year to view COSHH forms as annoying time wasting paperwork, fail to see the benefit in the opportunity to plan their work to be efficient and safe. While we may sign COSHH forms and check them quickly, many of our project students are doing reactions we have never done ourselves and may not be as familiar with the risks as we might be (which is not to belittle the experience held by academics). There may also be an attitude that we would not ask our students to do anything ‘dangerous’ because they are students.

So what do we plan to do in this project: Chemistry Laboratory Engagement and Assessment of Risk and Safety? We want to investigate ways in which students learn to think about laboratory safety. We want answers to the eternal question of why disposable nitrile gloves bestow the students with superpowers able to resist all chemicals. We want to figure out why half the class wants to put the aqueous sodium chloride in the halogenated waste. We want to investigate the misconceptions, the chemistry misconceptions, that underpin some of the frequent safety mistakes we see in the lab. We want a safety system that encourages students to think and evaluate rather than demanding simple compliance with rules but we can’t have that until we have a better idea of what on earth goes on in the minds of students when they are lurking in the laboratory.

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