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Kindergarten Lab Skills

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?

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Me, hard at work in the clean lab at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

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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!


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Hurrah for Montessori! And Regia Emilia! And all those hippie schools!

    (I used to be a school teacher years ago. I'd've killed to intern at such a place with the Li'l Stinkers!)

  2. I love you all. Deep angry, happy, smart love.

    That even goes for whats his name. But don't come back "what's his name".

    Smart chicks blow my mind.

    Smart chicks with acid make me happy as well.

  3. Well, dropping this kind of acid (hippie training or not) sounds like a nasty problem to face.

    Also, I see goggles but no face shield? Living on the edge huh :P

  4. (I'm going to pretend that I posted an image of Rainier Wolfcastle as Radioactive Man (on the Simpsons) with the infamous goggles that 'do nothing!')

    Ha! Wasn't that a funny picture? Cause…cause she said 'goggles,' right??

    (Now I'm going to pretend that I have not yet reached the heights of nerdery and, as such, imagine that I never submitted this post. Hooray delusion!)

  5. You know, I'm just wondering, is it kindergarden, or kindergarten?

    I seem to recall having seen the second spelling somewhere, but I can't remember where.

  6. My sister taught Montessori for years, and is considering sending her son to such a school. While she was teaching, I visited her classroom and she showed and explained the basic lessons to me.

    I was astounded. I floundered with math through grade and high school; wouldn't have graduated from the latter without tutoring. I really think being taught the basics the way it's done in Montessori would've made a huge difference… well, at least some difference.

    Mercy… is that what hydrofluoric acid does? How fascinatingly horrible. Glad to know you have such respect for that class of substances.

  7. Hi Evelyn,

    Pouring stuff is indeed cool, but whenever I have to pour hydrofluoric acid I completely tense up! I know it would be better to revert to your Zen-like approach, but I can never manage it. Happily, I have managed to adjust my processes to not require HF for the most part. But I still have an HF safety kit in my bathroom at home!

    Do you have an HF safety kit in your home? If not, I urgently suggest that you obtain one. The last thing you want is to be at home some evening (or worse yet, a weekend!) and start wondering if that burning sensation on your wrist/finger/etc is due to some little droplet of HF getting past your gloves. Quick treatment with calcium gluconate can make a big difference!

    Remember kids, "Safety First!"

  8. Rebecca– It's the colour scheme! Also, you need to get a tailored hazmat/radiation suit. I think a black, form-hugging outfit, along with the face shield would look totally evil and cool.

    –And of course, you'd have to have a chicken-hat.

  9. I made no spelling error. I have no idea what you're talking about*.

    Bseides, I hvae been tlod taht you olny need the frsit and lsat ltetres of a wrod to be in the rihgt palce in oderr to konw waht smothenig is syanig. I can put the ohter lteetrs in any odrer I wnat, and you sitll wlil konw waht I am syanig, in gerenal.

    *And I certainly have edited nothing on this blog.

  10. Paleoprof, Exarch: You definitely want a healthy respect for HF. However, being too afraid can be a bad thing, especially if you have to work with the acid on a regular basis. You want a steady hand!

  11. My HF phobia (as exarch describes it) probably stems from having seen too many pictures of the exceedingly nasty damage that comes from a serious HF burn. Stomach turning!

    I'm fine with other strong acids. I guess the thought of having my flesh burned off doesn't weird me out as much as the thought of having my bones dissolved away (VERY painfully) from the inside!

    Funny thing is, I get the same reaction from the chemists I work with when they see me poking around in the guts of a high voltage power supply. I guess there are many reasons we pick the fields of study that we do. Maybe fears of a particular form of death (acid vs electrocution) are more significant in these choices than we might imagine.

  12. Steve, honestly, HF scares me somtimes, too. I have spilled small quantities of it before. I've never spilled any on myself, except for a drop or two on my double-gloved hands. I quickly remove the gloves, wash my hands in water, and apply calcium gluconate gel all over my hands, but it still shakes me up.

    I think that people have become more aware of the dangers of HF, though. Still scares me, but I'm calm enough to work with it effectively, and I don't lose too much sleep at night.

  13. Evelyn wrote:

    "I made no spelling error. I have no idea what you’re talking about*."

    Silly me, always stating the obvious ;)

    But …

    "Bseides, I hvae been tlod taht you olny need the frsit and lsat ltetres of a wrod to be in the rihgt palce in oderr to konw waht smothenig is syanig. I can put the ohter lteetrs in any odrer I wnat, and you sitll wlil konw waht I am syanig, in gerenal."

    Smothenig? Don't you mean smoenoe? Or smodeoby?

    Hehehe :P

  14. I went to a school where preschool & kindergarten were Montessori, but once you hit 1st grade, it was normal. I really liked Montessori, & LOVED counting beads on the string – the beads were sooo shiny. Anyone else remember this?

    I have to say, I dislike pouring. Perhaps this is because, like my father and grandma, I have always had slight hand tremors. I also have a hard time with those pitchers that had a round hole in one end, and were kinda long & skinny – I know few adults who can pour from those without spilling!

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