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Homeland Security Hits High Schools

CHEMISTRY STUDENTS around the country will be introduced to fire-protection engineering and will learn not only how to deal with fires but also the science behind them, thanks to a program sponsored by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The program, “Chemistry of Fire,” was developed by the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) and Discovery Education. It is being made available to 20,000 high schools, which received materials on it in January, including a DVD, a book of interactive labs, and information on fire protection careers, as well as a dedicated Web site.

“In America, there’re more than 3,000 fire deaths,” annually, says Chris Jelenewicz, SFPE engineering program manager. Thousands more sustain injuries from fire each year, and the financial costs from damage are estimated at about $10 billion annually.

“We really thought there was a need to get into the schools and get information to high-school kids on the technical side of fire,” says Jelenewicz. He adds, “It really fits in well with the chemistry curriculum.”

A typical “Chemistry of Fire” lab lesson is the propane bubble experiment, where propane is pumped into a beaker full of soapy water to create bubbles, and a match is inserted and burns through the bubbles, demonstrating that the gas burns.

The introduction of a generation of students to the career of fire-safety engineer is a major goal of the program. Fire-safety engineers often work on building-design teams and use science and technology to improve building safety. Jelenewicz says that there’s a shortage of engineers and that he’s noticed an average of four job offers per new graduate in the field.

The “Chemistry of Fire” program is the latest in a slew of high-school programs focused on homeland security and emergencies in recent years. A magnet program in homeland security and emergency preparedness began in 2007 at Joppatowne High School in Harford County, Maryland, and has received abundant media attention. It offers three different “career pathways,” including science and technology and criminal justice/law enforcement.

Additionally, Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been gradually rolling out a homeland security program to be used at high schools. It essentially uses war-game-like exercises that focus on emergency preparedness.

“The knowledge base is sort of homeland security emergency response. But that’s not necessarily what we’re trying to emphasize here,” says John M. Taylor of Sandia’s strategic management group.

In discussing the various goals of the program, Taylor says “It’s really the open-ended thinking, the working with challenging problems, the idea…that you’ve got to work with other people, you’ve got to compromise, you’ve got to understand things from other people’s perspective.”

Taylor says his program is careful not to take sides or influence students. For example, if a student asks if the instructors think FEMA did the right thing after Hurricane Katrina, Taylor says that they’ll turn the question back on the student, asking him or her to work through the problem carefully and then to offer up possible solutions.

The programs expose students to information and skills needed to work in the emergency response and disaster management field. Interested individuals will then have the option of exploring these fields further as potential career possibilities.