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Air guns

Towards the end of last year, the press carried stories about a physics teacher who had been
sacked from his job because he carried out an experiment using an air gun. Dynamics
demonstrations using air guns can be carried out completely safely provided that standard
safety procedures, available in a number of texts1,2 ,3 ,4 ,5, are followed. Teachers were
naturally anxious that they, too, might lose their jobs as a result of carrying out a routine
Nuffield physics experiment, in which an air gun pellet is fired at a dynamics trolley or a
plasticine pendulum bob. Possible alternatives to the use of an air gun are discussed in
reference 4, but all have their limitations.

We have checked with the school concerned. The teacher was not doing the standard
experiment. If he had followed the safety guidelines mentioned above, no disciplinary action
whatsoever would have been taken. We have received a number of enquiries from members
about the wisdom of continuing to do the experiment, although, in fact, it is very unlikely that a
teacher would ever be severely disciplined for a single safety slip-up. Our advice is, that
provided the standard guidance is followed, there is no reason to stop. However, in the course of
discussions, it has emerged that some schools are not, in fact, following that guidance. In
particular, they are using a hand-held gun rather than one that is securely bolted to a wooden
board which forms part of the apparatus. We strongly advise against any other less secure
method, in particular any use of hand-held guns in schools.

Of course, there is considerable sensitivity to the notion of guns in schools at the moment.
Teachers need to be aware of this, and consider whether they really wish to carry out the
demonstration. If they do proceed, then they should consider very carefully how to handle it
with the pupils, stressing and explaining all of the safety precautions adopted (as is required in
England and Wales by the 1995 National Curriculum anyway).

How rumours start

Shortly after the air gun story appeared in the press, The Observer newspaper's Life magazine
carried a feature article about how exciting teaching was being stifled by an over emphasis on
safety:

'Once, school laboratories were abuzz with excitement. You could witness a demonstration of
the thermite reaction... handle potassium and sodium... But not today'.

The article also referred to the air gun incident. Many teachers are likely to believe what they
read in the press. As implied in the previous note, there is no national ban on the use of air
guns provided they are used in a safe manner. Equally, there is no ban nationally on the
thermite reaction or the use of sodium and potassium, again provided certain safety precautions
are adopted.

We have had some correspondence with the author of the article. He resolutely refuses to
acknowledge that he is starting or perpetuating any rumours, and states that he is only
reporting what teachers tell him. We have challenged him to provide documentary evidence of
any such bans. He has failed.

It is possible that there may be some local codes of practice which forbid the use of these
chemicals or procedures. A teacher must follow any guidelines or local code of practice issued by
his employer on safety but, if those guidelines are

unreasonable and against nationally accepted practice, they are worth challenging. We would be
happy to support our members in doing this, and thus put a stop to some of these rumours.

The article also said:

'More and more teachers - their hands tied by health and safety regulations - are being
prevented from making lessons...as stimulating as they could...'.

The author was probably correct that lessons are less stimulating than they could be, but the
reasons he gives are wrong. The true causes are the myth-makers and rumour-mongers.
References

1. Safeguards in the School Laboratory, 10th edition, ASE (1996).


2. Safety in Science Education, DfEE, (1996) HMSO.
3. Laboratory Handbook, CLEAPSS (1989-97).
4. SSERC Bulletin 190 (1997).
5. SSERC Bulletin 132 (1982).