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Safer At-Home Food Science Investigations

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2023-10-23

Safer At-Home Food Science Investigations

The concept of eating food or drinking beverages in science instructional spaces (laboratory, classroom, etc.) or other science non-instructional spaces (preparation rooms, chemical storerooms, etc.) seems unfathomable and completely unsafe to the trained science professional. Even considering the use of lab equipment (beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, etc.) to either consume or prepare food and beverages is totally unacceptable, given the real risk of biological or chemical hazard cross-contamination. 

Interestingly enough, a quick online search of at-home science experiments brings up countless hands-on investigations that don’t mention wearing any laboratory aprons and/or laboratory coats or any laboratory safety goggles or safety glasses. And these experiments rarely or never mention the hazards and resulting risks of biological or chemical cross-contamination in food and/or beverage use or product development in hands-on activities done at home.

The emergence of at-home science investigations hit a peak during the COVID-19 pandemic as families and educators, while obeying local, state, and federal stay-at-home orders, tried to integrate learning and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) philosophy to continue students’ education as best they could and tried to make it as fun as possible. NGSS is a research-based approach to providing inclusive access to high-quality science education. The NGSS advocates that students design and perform hands-on activities. The popularity of at-home hands-on science investigations continues despite schools reopening, likely because families and educators recognize the easy and fun nature of at-home hands-on science investigations. 

Numerous hands-on science investigations are aligned with the NGSS preK–5 learning view with a focus on tactile or kinesthetic learning. However, legal safety standards and better professional safety practices are not about incorporating fun, hands-on learning in hands-on investigations. These standards and safety practices do focus in part on when hands-on at-home science activities using food or beverages are not safely implemented.  

Whether in the formal academic school laboratory or off-site in the home environment, hands-on science activities do promote science education. However, equally or even more so, they also introduce legal issues under “duty or standard of care.” Basically “duty or standard of care” is defined as an obligation, recognized by law, requiring conformance to a certain standard of conduct to protect others against unreasonable risk. See NSTA’s document Legal Implications of Duty or Standard of Care for science instruction for additional information and guidance on this topic.

Be aware that school staff and school district leaders have a duty or standard of care that applies not only on the school worksite, but also to outside the classroom or laboratory in-home sites, to family members who supervise the students during these assignments.

For example, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) legal safety standards under the OSHA Laboratory Standard 29 C.F.R. 1910.1450 Appendix A, Section E, states the following: 

  • Avoid eating, drinking, smoking, gum chewing, or application of cosmetics in areas where laboratory chemicals are present.
  • Wash hands before conducting these activities. 
  • Avoid storage, handling, or consumption of food or beverages in storage areas, refrigerators, glassware, or utensils which are also used for laboratory operations.

Although OSHA legal safety standards only apply to workplace sites like school science instructional spaces, these same standards are considered better professional safety practices in the home site.

The point is this: If students are to observe these legal safety standards and better professional safety practices in a school instructional site laboratory or classroom setting, one could ask, “Why should they not implement the same legal safety standards and better professional safety practices in the home site during hands-on science investigations or when deciding which investigation to attempt?” Children are impressionable, and if it is demonstrated that food and science are aligned, the misconception of tasting or consuming food or beverages in a school instructional site laboratory or classroom setting could lead to unsafe science laboratory behaviors later in life, such as tasting a white solid that appears to look like table salt (sodium chloride) or table sugar (sucrose) to tell the difference between them. 

Safer Preparation

Before beginning any investigation, one should be thoroughly prepared and able to ensure how to safely perform it. One should first perform an exhaustive potential hazard analysis and resulting health and safety risk assessment. Potential safety hazards include, but are not limited to, biological hazards, chemical hazards, and physical hazards. (See the NSTA Safety Blog post Safety for Hands-On Science Home Instruction.)

Similar to when considering a hands-on activity in a school science instructional space, before contemplating any hands-on home activity, always conduct a safety hazard analysis and resulting health and safety risks assessment. This would be followed up by determining which safety actions (e.g., personal protective equipment [PPE], ventilation, etc.) would be taken to ensure a safer teaching/learning experience. If you do not feel comfortable performing the hands-on investigation after completing this process, try to reduce the potential hazards and resulting risks by considering engineering controls, safety protocols, or additional PPE. If you still are uncomfortable, stop immediately and consider an alternative activity.   

Also, as the science teacher, if you feel uncomfortable or unable to directly supervise the home-site investigation yourself, it is more than likely not a suitable activity and should be modified. Not every material or piece of equipment is available, and may not behave similarly as in the example shown with the description of the investigation. 

For example, does the hands-on science investigation using food or beverages require a heat source? Although a gas burner, like the Bunsen burner, is the most common laboratory heat source, it can be difficult to control the temperature, is likely to catch an unwanted material on fire, and is unlikely to be available in a home setting. If the investigation’s procedure does recommend a Bunsen burner, perhaps a different heat source would be better used. An electric source is more likely and more reasonable. If the procedure involves an electric heater, like a hot plate, ensure that it has a three-pronged plug and is plugged into a ground fault interrupter (GFI) protected outlet. Also, check to see if there is anything flammable or has a flash point associated with it. The chemical safety data sheet (SDS) will describe the hazard identification and toxicological information. 

Additionally, the chemical SDS—specifically Section 8—should be reviewed to identify if any PPE is recommended during the investigation. Lastly, how to safely dispose of materials is just as important as how to safely perform activities. Section 13 of the SDS discusses disposal policies. If the resource does not provide a chemical SDS, one should do a quick online search to find it. Flinn Scientific provides thorough chemical SDSs. 

Although it is highly discouraged, if the investigation produces an edible material, one should be aware of any allergens involved and of any safer food preparation and storage policies. Any materials that involve microorganisms, like yogurt, must be heated to the recommended temperature and stored appropriately in a sealed container. 

If the investigation requires hand or power tools, the teacher or adult supervising should be aware of and follow the OSHA safety guidelines

Final Thoughts

The hands-on science activities that are the most fun and colorful are not always the safest. Be mindful when deciding on an at-home hands-on science investigation of any type, including those involving food and/or beverages.  Among the activity resources, the teacher, and the adult at-home supervisor, there is a legal obligation when hands-on science and/or STEM learning experiences are happening, and the necessity of implementing safety practices is mandatory under duty or standard of care. When deciding which investigation to try next, the focus should be on the learning objective and on the student’s and teacher’s or adult at-home supervisor’s safety instead of on how colorful or how large the scientific phenomenon is. 

For legal and safety reasons, at no point should any chemical or biological material be consumed unless under the direct supervision of a trained adult. If we introduce blindly tasting or drinking to an investigation, the dangerous misconception arises of insusceptibility of biological or chemical hazards and the legal ramifications that would potentially be catastrophic. 

Safety Blog Acknowledgement

NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank Brian C. Duffy, Ph.D.—a nationally recognized Wayne Community College chemistry instructor, NSTA Research in Science Education Committee member, and former NSTA Safety Advisory Board Chair—for his professional review of this blog post.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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