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Thomas Guetzloff: Chemical spill may inspire new scientists

By By Thomas Guetzloff, Ph.D.

The aftermath of January’s chemical spill into the Elk River has been a trying time for many people in and around the Kanawha Valley. However, from an educational standpoint, it has had one positive outcome. It has brought a new level of discourse about science and technology into the public media.

Many scientists and others have been pulled into discussions about water safety and chemical testing. This appears to have attracted the attention of many young people.

My hope is that this will encourage more students to go into the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Perhaps they are learning about the need for our society to have more individuals trained in science to deal with occurrences like the chemical spill that affect people’s everyday lives. The workforce of the future will need people who know how to maintain proper scientific protocols in testing, research and the reporting of findings.

As a chemistry professor, many of my friends and students have sought me out for answers to their questions about MCHM. I have tried to allay many of their fears. People have been confused by the jargon, including the use of terms such as “so many parts per million or billion.”

Recently, it has become apparent that some research is being released through tweets. Twitter is a great resource, but 140-character messages don’t lend themselves well to the reporting of scientific findings. In many cases, that just misleads the public and has led to misplaced fears. It also leads to much confusion.

Being an educator, I judge and grade students on their ability to provide well documented research for their papers and other projects. There are accepted forms for reporting of scientific information and research. I hope those reporting data related to the spill will use these accepted processes and rely less on social media. It is so important that lay persons be able to understand this crucial and complicated information. If this is the goal of scientists studying this event, then they will use true scientific principles and communications vehicles.

If the research is shared in a correct fashion it will hopefully help us avoid future accidents. Our community will also witness firsthand the role science plays in our society. As a side benefit, we may attract the next generation of scientists, who learned about real world chemistry as a result of spill, to our institutions of higher education. This will be one positive outcome.

Thomas Guetzloff, of Scott Depot, is a professor of chemistry at West Virginia State University.


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