The lure of do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide " the proverbial stink bomb " went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine.
Since the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, the Defense Department, FBI, and other government agencies have strategized ways of tracking even small purchases of potentially dangerous chemicals. Many of these small purchases are those brilliant kids learning in their own homes.
In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state's Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as "commonly associated with meth labs" are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips.
The chemophobia that's put a damper on home science has also invaded America's classrooms, where hands-on labs are being replaced by liability-proof teacher demonstrations with the explicit message Don't try this at home. A guide for teachers of grades 7 through 12 issued by the American Chemical Society in 2001 makes the prospect of an hour in the lab seem fraught with peril: "Every chemical, without exception, is hazardous. Did you know that oxygen is poisonous if inhaled at a concentration a bit greater than its natural concentration in the air? "More than half of the suggested experiments in a multimedia package for schools called "You Be the Chemist," created in 2004 by the Chemical Educational Foundation, are to be performed by the teacher alone, leaving students to blow up balloons (with safety goggles in place) or answer questions like "How many pretzels can you eat in a minute?"
The lost of the garage lab and a lack of real science education in the classroom is hurting our students. This comes at a time when America is falling behind in the number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the 18-to-24 age group.
"You have to capture kids' imaginations very young or you lose them forever," says Steve Spangler, a former protÃ©gÃ© of Mr. Wizard who is now a science correspondent for the NBC affiliate in Denver. "But that's hard when you have teachers required to check out vinegar and baking soda from the front office because something bad might happen in class. Slowly but surely the teaching tools are being taken away, so schools end up saying, "Let's get a college professor to do this demonstration, and kids can watch the streaming video."
It's quite evident that students are not going to get the science education they need from our schools. It's too bad that these amateur scientists have to resort to an underground culture in order for the tradition of home laboratory to survive. America is going to continue to under-perform in the sciences unless it can find a way to accommidate our budding scientists.
"Taking chemicals and lab equipment away from kids who love science is like taking crayons and paints away from a kid who may grow up to be an artist." Bob Lazar