Should safety standards strengthen in schools' maker-centric curricula?

A sixty year focus on safety has made model rocketry an incredibly safe hobby for adults and children alike.  Credit:  Joe Schneid CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikipedia

A sixty year focus on safety has made model rocketry an incredibly safe hobby for adults and children alike. Credit: Joe Schneid CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikipedia

A California teen died and his friend critically injured when their experimental rocket exploded. Southern California media from the Los Angeles Times to the Thousand Oaks Echo rushed to cover the tragedy. But none of the reporting has addressed the safety breakdown that led to the incident.

Over the past week the facts surrounding the incident have become clearer. Bernard Moon the 18-year old class president at Thousand Oaks High School and his 17-year old friend were working on an AP Physics project, unsupervised, at a local elementary school playground. They had mixed chemicals to create a higher powered version of a bottle rocket which they had attached to a skateboard. The bottle exploded in Moon’s hands, lethally wounding him, and severely injuring his friend.

Keep in mind that model rocketry ranks among the safest hobbies. Safety standards set by the National Association of Rocketry since the 1950s removed the hobby’s most dangerous aspect - mixing high explosives - from the public’s hands. A safety code covers the design, construction, and launch of model rockets. The combination of standards and a safety-first amateur culture lets amateur rocketeers send their home-built rockets thousands of feet in the air.

Moon and his friend were operating far beyond the scope defined by the NAR. Contrary to the media reports this was no “model rocket”. It was an experimental rocket. Many of the media reports used some variation of “it is not known whether either of the boys was riding the skateboard” to speculate that the kids were doing something dumb. Given Moon’s background, his regular participation in science fairs, and his aspirations to be an engineer, there is a more likely explanation. They used the skateboard as a rocket sled to keep it on the ground rather than launching it in the air.

The media have left this and other questions unanswered. Did the teens set safety protocols for their experiments? Did teachers at the Thousand Oaks High School set safety standards for their students’ unsupervised work?

Accidents do happen even for the best rocket scientists in the world. The surprising thing is that disasters are so rare and deaths even rarer. Credit: Nasa/Joel Kowsky

We can’t cocoon kids to keep kids safe from every possible risk. This is especially true for scientifically curious kids like Bernard Moon. They must be given the chance to “play” with science. The shift to experiential education and the proliferation of tools like 3D printers and inexpensive-yet-powerful electronics can accelerate today’s kids on the road to becoming the scientists, engineers, and innovators of the future.

But safety is an integral part of science and engineering. These cultural norms and safety protocols let Nasa, SpaceX, Blue Origin and others push the boundaries with a remarkable safety record. Schools must play a role introducing that culture into their increasingly maker-centric curricula. But it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to know how to do this. The engineering profession itself must take responsibility for making safety easy to learn.

Moon’s parents established a scholarship fund to benefit young science students. So far it has raised more than $24,000 on an original $5,000 goal.