A Sad Day in the Science Classroom

I opened up the Star Tribune to a sad story. From the Star Tribune:

Thursday morning, ninth-graders in the second-hour science class at Maple Grove Junior High School had turned their desks toward the science table where teacher Matthew Achor conducted experiments for the class final.

The first time the teacher dropped a match into a jug of methanol, Neuberger said the experiment seemed to work. “It made a loud boom and a little flame,” he said. “Everyone thought that was cool and clapped.”

Neuberger looked down at his paper to begin writing down his observations. “I’m pretty sure he was starting it up to do it a second time,” Neuberger said. “And the next thing I know I’m on fire.”

Several students were injured during this science experiment. One of the students, Dane Neuberger, was severely injured with second degree burns to his face.  All of the students are expected to make a full recovery, and according to the article it doesn’t look like Neuberger will need skin grafts. Only minor damage was sustained to the classroom.

Details are slim in the article, but it sounds like the appropriate actions were taken after the explosion. A fire blanket was used to wrap Neuberger and an ambulance was called immediately. The room was evacuated and the fire department was called to investigate. The article doesn’t discuss the type of bottle or the amount or type of methyl alcohol employed in the experiment.

The science behind what was being taught.

The purposes of this experiment could be to demonstrate an exothermic reaction, oxygen supply in combustions (if a narrow-necked bottle is used as heat, flame and gas exits the bottle, fresh oxygen is sucked back into the bottle, re-igniting any remaining methanol vapor), detonation velocity, expansion of gases, etc.

This video shows the experiment as performed on four different alcohols:

The way it works is that liquid methanol is put into a bottle and allowed to evaporate, leaving methanol vapor in the bottle. Heat energy – a match, in this case – is added to the bottle, causing a combustible chemical reaction. Visible flame and a loud whoosh” is heard during the reaction. The methanol vapors are ignited, and liquid by-product (H2O) is left in the bottom of the bottle.

In the article above it’s mentioned that this teacher had been performing this experiment for years, and I found several online mentions of this as an acceptable high-school chemistry-level experiment. Some sites perform the study outdoors, some indoors. I do not remember this experiment performed when I was in junior high or high school.

Science teachers – Do you use this experiment in your classes? What safety precautions do you employ? For the rest of you – Do you remember this experiment from your days in the chemistry classroom? Did you have any larger-than-intended explosions?

A Sad Day in the Science Classroom
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21 thoughts on “A Sad Day in the Science Classroom

  1. 1

    I keep thinking about that poor kid whose face was torched. I would be **freaking**out if I were his mother! It might be a cool thing to do for class, but all it takes is one time to ruin someones face like that. Poor guy…and really, poor teacher. He must feel just as awful.

  2. 2

    I am ashamed to admit I took no science in high school. I’m also ashamed that Minnesota permitted this. I have no opinion as too whether this is an appropriate experiment for high school, but I do wonder whether this experiment will go the way of unsupervised fun at the playground. (I spent most of my youth completely unsupervised as did the husband). I hope that future teachers will ensure that the experiment is done safely rather than not at all.

  3. 3

    This experiment can be SHOWN on VIDEO. Why wasn’t that done?

    What the article doesn’t tell you is that the students had no lab coats on, the cupboard with the goggles was sitting still full of goggles, and the fire blanket was outside the classroom.

    How do I know? I’m an attorney who was hired by one of the families in this explosion. We’ve interviewed several students already.

    Dozens of kids have been burned in the past decade due to this exact experiment. Check http://www.eosenvironmental.com/docs/methanolaccidentsummary.jpg. You’ll see just a few of the major burning incidents caused by this experiment.

    These horrible injuries were completely avoidable.

    1. 3.1

      Thanks for your input, MNPIA. I did run across a other incidents that involved this methanol experiment gone wrong. I even ran across a couple of sites that told me *how* to do the experiment without giving any proper safety instruction, or even how much methanol should be used and at what concentration! This obviously has the potential to be a dangerous situation.

      But to your first question, “Why wasn’t this experiement shown on video?”…I imagine it’s the same reason why we still have wet labs all over the country for things like titration (which uses caustic acids and bases), animal dissection (which uses sharp surgical instruments, formaldehyde), and laser experiments (which use…well, lasers).

      Hands-on experimentation and live demonstrations engage student’s imagination and interest in the subject. Lots of lessons can be shown on video these days – a quick search of YouTube will yield results on many topics. But videos and simulations are just one type of tool that can be used to show how breathtakingly useful, exact, complex, and yes, even dangerously powerful science can be.

      Many live demos and wet labs have some inherent danger – that’s why we employ personal protective equipment like lab coats and goggles, and use standard operating procedures. That danger is there in professional laboratories and in the high school and college classrooms that prepare students for professional laboratories.

      I hope that when this individual case is examined the investigation will be focused on how (and if) the proper safety controls and operation of this routine experiment were employed, so that we can avoid similar situations in the future without constraining live demonstrations in the future. I don’t want to see science classes reduced to textbooks, whiteboards and video simulations.

  4. 4

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