Chemistry students put school bathrooms under the microscope

By Joanna Klonsky

NORTH CAROLINA—Ever wonder what kind of bacteria is festering in public bathrooms? So did a group of high school students on Creedmoor, North Carolina. And while the average high school students stared at textbooks or memorized formulas, those students at South Granville School of Health and Life Sciences embarked on an action research project to find out just how contaminated the bathrooms in their public school were. In the process, they learned not only about Petri dishes and bacteria growth, but also about the benefits of a hands-on learning science curriculum.

The assignment in Dr. Jeff Lacosse’s honors chemistry class in the fall of 2005, says senior Nicole Miller, was to pick a project “that would help in the community.” When the girls decided to test four bathrooms in their school and two others in local restaurants for bacteria growth, Lacosse asked them to write a grant proposal to What Kids Can Do to help fund the project. 

“The next thing we knew, we had won the grant for it the experiment,” says senior Alexis Franks. “We ordered all of the equipment we needed—incubators, Petri dishes, microscopes, a refrigerator, lab coats—and spent about three or four weeks learning how to use the material that we had purchased and learning how to make slides and use the Petri dishes.”

Hunting for bacteria, making an impact

The students then went from one bathroom to the next, swabbing the insides of the toilets, handles, towel dispensers, sinks, and floors. After incubating those samples, the science students discovered that the floors, not the toilets, were the most bacteria-laden section of the bathrooms. They were also surprised to find that the men’s bathrooms were “generally cleaner than women’s,” according to their study. 

The group then began the second part of their project. They tested major cleaning solution brands in their bathrooms, and recommended to their school janitorial staff that they use Clorox or Comet cleansers, which, they found, worked the best to kill bacteria.

Since then, says Miller, “We actually have seen changes in some of the bathrooms.” Senior Amber Prigen adds that the bathrooms are now “more sanitary. They added more light in the bathrooms, which is better to see how dirty it really is. The upkeep is better—it used to be we really didn’t have much soap in the soap dispensers, paper towels and stuff like that.” 

Going beyond “book work”

By the time the research group completed their report it was clear that it would be difficult to go back to typical science class. “I like hands-on experience better. I learn better from that and I did learn a lot from this project,” says senior Amber Prigen. So why aren’t more high school science courses oriented around this sort of action research and hands-on curriculum?

Lacosse, who oversaw the project, explains that “a lot of the teachers come in and there’s no resources to do any hands-on activities, and it’s up to the teachers themselves” to acquire the funding for such projects.  Lacosse and his fellow science faculty members at South Granville have “written probably to date about $40,000 worth of grants to get most of the equipment that we have right now,” he says.

For these students, it is clear that finding that funding is worth the effort. “I’ve never had a science class that actually challenged us to use something that we were learning in the classroom in real life,” says Franks. “Everything else in Earth Science and Biology was mainly book work… We really didn’t go out into the street…I think it should be part of all curriculum in all of our science classes to at least know how you can apply this in real life.”


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator