Teaching lab safety is – how shall I say it – extremely boring to teach. Lab safety is also a buzzkill – a wet blanket extinguishing the excitement we want to build at the beginning of the year. We start the year telling students how engaging, active and relevant science is in their life. Then, we totally throw it out the window when we teach lab safety. Sure, there are videos and worksheets that try to make teaching lab safety more exciting. But, worksheets and videos only teach students to identify lab safety rules. Students really can’t practice doing lab safety with a worksheet or video.
How can we make teaching lab safety more active, engaging, and relevant to students? The short answer is to have students do a lab. Unfortunately, teachers may feel reluctant to do so. For starters, what lab could students do with the limited knowledge they have coming into class? Also, what about materials? Lab materials can be expensive, limited, or difficult to prepare. Also, there may not be time at the beginning of the year to set up a complicated lab. The ideal activity to teach lab safety that is easy to set up and engaging for the students is hard to find.
Having said that, we developed one. And, near the end of this post, you can sign up to receive a free copy of our activity emailed to you.
Our Simple Solution (literally, it’s a “solution”)
Our lab activity has students practice lab safety by doing a simple, everyday activity in a very scientific way. Students brew coffee.
The inspiration for this activity came when I went to San Francisco and Portland many years ago and noticed a resurgence in the hipster (ie. pour-over) method of brewing coffee. In the pour-over method, a ceramic funnel is placed on top or suspended above a coffee cup. Filter paper and coffee grounds are added to the funnel. Then, hot water is slowly poured over the coffee grounds, and coffee is collected in the cup below. Today, any hipster coffee shop that brews single-origin, shade-grown (or any other hipster description) coffee brews by pour-over. And, like any craft, there is a science to brewing a great cup of coffee.
Our Set up and Experience
Using filter funnels, ring stands, ring clamps, hot plates, beakers, and filter paper, my students brew “hipster coffee”. Students set up the equipment to mimic what the coffee shops have, and they run their own pour-overs. And, they love it. Students love doing something that grown-ups typically do. They love setting up their equipment and slowly pouring water over coffee grounds. They love the fragrant product. I love the fact that students are excited about science. More importantly, I love that they’re getting some hands-on experience to some important science skills: how to handle and pour hot liquids, how to setup and use equipment correctly, how to dispose of used reagents, and how to work around hot objects (ie. hot plates).
A Few Tips to Consider
Here are some tips if you’re interested in using coffee to teach lab safety.
– Use electric kettles to pre-heat enough water for the class. Heating water using hot plates is a pretty slow process, and electric kettles will save some time. Afterwards, students can pour out what is necessary to into their own beakers and place beakers back onto their hot plates to bring the water back to a boil.
– use ground coffee. But, if you want students to get experience using a mortar and pestle, buy whole bean coffee
– Students tend to set up their ring clamp and filter funnel pretty high above the collecting beaker. This increases the likelihood of splashing and is a good teachable moment on how to reduce splashing.
Putting it all together
Teaching lab safety does not have to be boring. It should be taught in a more engaging manner that excites our students – especially since we hope to get them excited about the school year. I think coffee – and brewing it the hipster way – is a great way to do it. If you’re interested in using coffee to teach lab safety, we’ve developed a step-by-step handout (which includes discussion questions) that we give to our students. Click on the link below and enter your email address to get your copy emailed to you. We’ll also email you our regular e-newsletter as well as any new resources we develop in the future.
Until next time, keep it (ie. science) REAL.