All I need to do my labwork today, I learned in kindergarten. Honestly. I went to one of those hippie Montessori schools from preschool through middle school. I loved it. I spent my kindergarten days playing with giant pink blocks, being creative with finger paints, and– most importantly– mastering the art of pouring various substances from one container to another.
Montessori classrooms, at least the preschool and kindergarten classrooms, are full of pouring exercises. In a typical kindergarten classroom the shelves are stocked with various trays of activities called “works” that the students can select and take little white mats on the floor. Pouring exercises are abundant on these shelves. Other sorts of works? Colored puzzles, map games, drawing exercises, blocks you can make into towers and staircases, card games, math games, animal games, and all sorts of other delightful activities that make learning so much fun.
Admittedly, Montessori classrooms can be very strange looking. There are few organized lessons, no desks, few due dates, and no grades. There’s just a bunch of kids working diligently on various projects, sitting quietly cross-legged on white mats, which they roll up and put away automatically after finishing their work. Someone who has never seen a Montessori classroom before might be amazed that such a classroom can work, but it does. At first, one does not even realize that a teacher is present. From the young age of three or four, the students learn to be very independent. Largely, they teach themselves and they teach each other with the teachers providing minimal, yet important, guidance.
Montessori is not for all kids, but I loved it. And I loved the pouring exercises. I enjoyed pouring rice from a large jug into smaller cups and back again. Or pouring water from one bowl to another, practicing until I could do so without spilling a drop. Or pouring colored stones among vases of various sizes. Or, around the holidays, pouring different colored beads in various holiday-shaped dishes and back again. I would pour for hours upon hours back in kindergarten.
These days, I pour a fair amount. Currently, I am dissolving rock powders in the geochemistry clean lab here at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In order to dissolve these powders I need to use some rather potent acids. Today, I spent a good two hours pouring mixtures of 4:1 hydrofluoric acid:perchloric acid and 3:1 hydroflouric acid:nitric acid from larger bottles into small beakers. I needed to be able to pour, transfer, remove lids, and screw on lids all without spilling a drop. Of course, I was wearing safety gear. I was wearing a tyvek jumpsuit, plastic clogs, two pairs of gloves, goggles (for Rebecca, of course), and a full face shield. Still, it isn’t recommended to spill these strong acids. Hydrofluoric acid is nasty stuff. This strong acid soaks into your skin without burning or giving you much warning. All of a sudden, your bones start dissolving as the acid replaces the calcium in your bones. Even a very small amount of contact with this acid can be deadly. Perchloric and nitric acid are not too nice, either, though they give you a little warning by burning like hell, at least in the case of nitric.
Yet, pouring these deadly acids all day I reverted to my kindergarten calm. I love pouring, and I know how to pour without spilling a drop. Who knew my hippie education would one day be so useful?
Me, hard at work in the clean lab at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.
A scary picture of Rebecca, plotting skepchick world domination in the clean lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Shh! Don’t tell my advisor I let her in the lab!