"I've been to schools way out in the country where the science budget is $500 a year," says Fred Byers, a retired teacher who now sells safety equipment for Fisher Scientific. "Is that enough to make sure there's enough safety goggles in the room? Not in my book."
What some students fear most is not the lab setup but their fellow students, according to a recent study by the Clinton Scientific Trust. "One of the main dangers in the lab is silly people," one student said in the survey.
In Madison, Wis., one such student took the antics outside the lab. He stole a flask of mercury from a teacher's desk and poured it into the finger holes of bowling balls at the local alley, creating a mess that cost nearly $250,000 to clean up. A judge ordered the boy and his parents to reimburse that money.
Many science teachers hold back on experiments because of pressure from school officials who fear lawsuits. In Iowa, according to Drake researchers, accidents doubled and lawsuits tripled between 1993 and '96.
At one Michigan school, administrators - in a move that some say amounted to "scientific illiteracy" - drew the blinds during a total eclipse of the sun, not allowing students to see it because of the "bad light" that could damage their eyes. While damage can indeed stem from improper viewing of an eclipse, Mr. Gallagher says eclipses can be viewed safely, and they provide magnificent teaching moments.
Mike Williams, a middle school teacher from Lee County, N.C., says he recently stayed away from a heredity experiment after a colleague warned him about taking blood from students.
"Principals tell us to make sure we don't get sued, yet the state wants us to do more hands-on science," Mr. Williams says. He's considering doing the experiment with "synthetic blood."