Inquiry. Inquiry is a word that is sometimes hard to pronounce and a concept that is often hard for teachers to implement. What does it mean? How do you put it into practice? Do I simply give my students instructions and hope for the best? My understanding of inquiry is still developing as I gain experience as a science educator, but one of the aspects of doing labs with an inquiry structure is to put more control in the student’s hands. In my class students are asked to come up with procedures from research and collaboration that they do. When they start a lab they know that if something goes wrong it is often because of their plan. I focus on reflection as an important part of lab. I ask my students: What went well? What did not go well? What had you wished you had known before you started? What will you do differently next time you are asked to do a lab? This puts the responsibility on them for the quality of their results but also gives them a place to wrestle with failure. So your solution ended up all over the bench. How did that happen? What are you going to do about it?
Green chemistry is an invaluable component to why I feel comfortable letting my students work so freely in the lab. On the first day of school a student asked, “Mrs. Stewart, what is the most dangerous chemical we are going to use in lab this year?” My answer was to ask the student to first define dangerous and that provided me with the opportunity to discuss the risk equation (Risk= Hazard*Exposure). When working safely in the lab traditionally we manage risk by trying to minimize the exposure of particularly hazardous chemicals. Green chemistry principles and practices address the hazard component in the risk equation. We discussed hydrochloric acid as an example. After reading the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) some students decided it was too hazardous to use, but other students piped in with the fact that hydrochloric acid can be found in our stomach. We concluded as a group that the most dangerous chemical we would use this year was dependent on how our class of student scientists go about interacting with the chemicals.
One of the resources I use at the beginning of the year to introduce and connect the 12 principles of green chemistry to safety and decision making in the lab is the Chemical Hazard Awareness Module. Students are asked to compare the SDS’s of various chemicals and determine which would be the safer ones to work with for what we are trying to accomplish in the lab. This foundation helps guide students to analyze safety aspects when writing their procedures and completing their inquiry investigations.