Undergrad laboratory “safety teams”

As I wrapped up the Teaching Safety package a few weeks ago, I went to put together the resources blog post. When I searched the Journal of Chemical Education for “safety,” I came across a newly published paper that looked intriguing: Safety Teams: An Approach to Engage Students in Laboratory Safety.

The paper, from Seattle University (SU) chemistry professors Peter J. Alaimo, Joseph M. Langenhan and Martha J. Tanner, along with University of California, Merced, research associate Scott M. Ferrenberg, described a unique approach to teaching laboratory safety. I was very disappointed that I discovered their work so late in the game—I would have loved to include it in the cover story. Since it was too late for that, I thought I’d bring it to the blog.

Back around 2005, Alaimo says, he and his colleagues realized that “what we were doing was really not what we thought the lab courses ought to do” for lab safety training. Students were simply memorizing a set of rules and “it just was so dreadfully boring and unengaged,” Alaimo says.

Instead, the SU team wanted to find a way to step away from rote memorization and get students actively engaged in lab safety, to develop the knowledge to be able to think through what they were doing, and to know how to respond if something happened in the lab, Alaimo says.

The program they put into place for organic chemistry has two parts. The first is an introductory training session that occurs in the first lab period of the three-quarter organic lab sequence. The training alternates between class discussion and activities and covers risk management, chemical toxicity, chemical spill prevention and waste collection, and safety equipment. The activities include examining fume hoods that the instructors have set up with hazards such as poorly clamped or cracked glassware and improperly labeled chemical containers, and the students have to identify as many problems as they can. Later, the students have to rearrange and organize the hoods to reduce the likelihood of a spill. The gloves that the students wear are contaminated with a fluorescent tracer, and at the end of the lab they use black lights to determine just where the powder wound up—including checking doorknobs, backpacks, and clothing.

The second part of the SU approach involves dividing the students in each lab section into teams of 2-3 students, separate from their lab experiment partners. For one lab session each quarter, each team must put together a prelab handout that goes over the chemical hazards, procedural hazards, personal protective equipment, and waste collection for the experiment the class will be doing that day (their professor reviews the handout before the lab). Then, at the beginning of that lab session, the team leads a 5 min discussion of those issues. During the lab period, as their experiment permits, the team members must circulate through the lab to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears to monitor what’s going on. At the end of the session, they inspect the lab, making sure that equipment and materials are put away and the lab is clean. They also flag anything that’s broken or malfunctioning.

The students are graded both on worksheets completed during the training session and the performance of their safety duties during their assigned lab session. “If they don’t get points for it, they don’t take it seriously,” Alaimo says. (You can see the worksheets and the grading rubric in the paper’s supporting information.)

Overall, the approach seems to be making a difference in the SU labs. To start with, the labs are cleaner at the end of the day. Perhaps more importantly, however, the student-driven handouts and discussions has led “to an attitude that we rarely observed in previous years; using safety teams our students are more safety conscious. They seem to view themselves as a part of the process of safeguarding the lab. Student responsibility manifests itself not only in attitude but also in behavior. For example, we observe students pointing out to each other the ways in which they could make their conduct in the lab more safe,” the authors write.

Empirically, student surveys also seem to show an improvement in safety knowledge of the students (if you’re wondering about UC Merced’s Ferrenberg, he was the statistician). Those who progressed through the “safety teams” program scored significantly better than traditionally-taught students when they were tested on questions like “If you are splashed in the face with a chemical while wearing goggles you should…”

The JCE paper covers the initial implementation of the “safety teams” approach in 2006-2007. Portions of the program are now expanding to other parts of the chemistry curriculum, Alaimo says. All SU chemistry labs are now having students do the post-lab inspection. Over this summer the faculty will be working to integrate other parts of the program into general chemistry, and then they’ll start looking at biochemistry. Alaimo and colleagues also want to start identifying what the actual problems are in teaching labs—what are the top 10 or 20 ways that students actually get hurt—to make sure those issues are addressed in the students’ training.

Ultimately, Alaimo says, the SU goal is “to engage students actively in the process rather than just dispense information.” The new approach takes time and effort, but he believes that investment is paying off.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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1 Comment

  1. This is really great — you’d really love to see a graduate school version of this.