National School Science Safety Indexing Project: A Beginning; Developing a National Indexing System to Evaluate Secondary School Facilities and Safety Practices

By Gerlovich, Jack A.; McElroy, Dennis et al. | The Science Teacher, September 2005 | Go to article overview

National School Science Safety Indexing Project: A Beginning; Developing a National Indexing System to Evaluate Secondary School Facilities and Safety Practices


Gerlovich, Jack A., McElroy, Dennis, Parsa, Rahul, Wazlaw, Brian, The Science Teacher


There is extensive agreement within the science profession that the "hands-on, minds-on" approach to teaching and learning science described within the National Science Education Standards creates a more effective learning environment. However, inquiry can pose serious safety challenges for teachers and students in old and poorly equipped or maintained facilities and where safety training is deficient or nonexistent.

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Past studies reveal that science safety in our nation's schools needs significant attention (Gerlovich and Parsa 2002; Gerlovich et al. 2002; Gerlovich, Wilson, and Parsa 1998; and Young 1972). These studies have focused on individual states and the issues and hazards specific to those states. A comprehensive study is needed to identify and address science safety issues and hazards common to the entire nation. The authors of the National Science Safety Indexing Project (Gerlovich, Parsa, and McElroy), in collaboration with Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), have designed a three-year study--the National School Science Safety Indexing Project--to develop a science safety indexing system to evaluate facilities and safety practices.

Past safety studies

Science professionals understand the importance of inquiry, but issues arise regarding the safety guidelines that must accompany inquiry. The National Science Education Standards state that:

  Safety is a fundamental concern in all experiential science. Teachers
  of science must know and apply the necessary safety regulations in the
  storage, use, and care of the materials used by students. They adhere
  to safety rules and guidelines that are established by national
  organizations such as the American Chemical Society and the
  Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as by local and
  state regulatory agencies. They work with the school and district to
  ensure implementation and use of safety guidelines for which they
  (school and district) are responsible, such as the presence of safety
  equipment and an appropriate class size. Teachers also teach students
  how to engage safely in investigations inside and outside the
  classroom (NRC 1996, p. 44).

But are these safety guidelines being implemented? According to recent surveys, there is reason for concern. During the fall 2000, members of NSTA were surveyed via the association's website (Gerlovich and Parsa 2002). Survey questions were organized into four general categories: general information about the participants, facilities, equipment, and procedures. A total of 302 secondary science teachers representing 47 states and 3 United States territories responded to the survey.

These responses indicated the existence of potentially serious safety concerns in our nation's schools. A large percentage of the teachers who responded were unaware of the applicable laws, codes, and standards addressing safety issues; their lab facilities and equipment were substandard or nonexistent; and chemical storerooms were in very poor condition or in disarray. Another past study of science accidents in Iowa schools revealed that as schools moved from traditional textbook-based science programs to inquiry-based science, the accident rates and resulting legal complications also increased (Gerlovich, Wilson, and Parsa 1998).

Presently, studies of 15 states have confirmed the aforementioned findings (Gerlovich and Parsa 2002; Gerlovich et al. 2004; Gerlovich et al. 2005; Gerlovich et al. 2002; and Gerlovich, Wilson, and Parsa 1998). However, the studies were primarily conducted in response to specific requests for safety assistance and therefore carried out in isolation. Similar studies on the topic of safety issues and concerns were also conducted in isolation (Biehl, Motz, West 1999; West et al. 2001; Young 1972). Because the studies were conducted in isolation, different methods were used to gather data, and the variables in the studies were not controlled. …

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