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FHS shuts down biology, chemistry labs citing safety issues

After the Bunsen burners began sending out flames at the wrong end about three weeks ago, teachers and staff at Farragut High School decided it was time to shut down the biology and chemistry lab.

“We’ve had a concern for a long time about our conditions and safety,” said John Ayala, head of the science department.

The 30-year-old lab was never properly connected to a gas line. Instead of securely-installed lab tables typically found in science labs, portable tables and portable gas tanks — the kind used with outside residential grills — were brought in. Since the furniture is portable, a gas line can’t be connected to the tables.

“Propane, being a heavier gas, doesn’t rise off and dissipate,” said Jane Skinner, science lab teacher, adding how that increases the danger.

Michael Reynolds, FHS principal, said he doesn’t know of any other school in Knox County with such a setup.

“When you have a poor ventilation system combined with a faulty propane system, you’re increasing the odds of an accident,” Reynolds said. “It’s kind of like we don’t need a Band-Aid, we need a tourniquet.”

In addition to the burners misfiring, students and teachers have had to deal with the smell of propane, because the science lab has no ventilation other than the outside doors. A chemical storage area is also unventilated, and the ventilation hood is undersized, teachers said.

There are also electrical problems under a sink, said Kristen Baksa, chemistry teacher.

Reynolds has gone to the Farragut Education Foundation with the need, which has been estimated to cost between $250,000 to $350,000.

Farragut Chamber members were given a tour of the science lab after the Chamber breakfast in the school cafeteria Friday, Feb. 17. Lee Reidinger, Ph.D., associate laboratory director at Oak Ride National Laboratory and a member of the FHS science advisory council, explained the necessary renovation to local business people.

Baksa and Ray Riley, biology teacher, were instrumental last year in setting up a science advisory committee composed of local scientists, members of private industry and University of Tennessee professors.

The committee came to FHS to observe classes for a day, and “they were shocked,” said Skinner.

“They said they never expected to see conditions in the lab like this,” added Baksa.

The creation of the advisory board was the first step in establishing a link between the school and industry. Local leaders are advising FHS about what the school needs to do from a prospective employer’s point of view. The science department hopes to partner with UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory and so students can get hands-on experience.

Reynolds said he is hoping to bring in science experts on Wednesday mornings, when school starts late.

Correcting the problems in the science department is a crucial step in furthering those kinds of partnerships, Reynolds said.

“We’re at the point that we don’t know how to raise the money to do what has to be done,” Ayala said. “No one has an idea of how to do it. We need to let the community know what’s wrong.”


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