What Could Happen? or Safety First

“Did you guys finish electricity?” asked a former student.

“Yes,” I answered. “We just began sound & light.”

“Cool. Did you show them the hot dog cooker? I loved that!”

For years, the hot dog cooker has been one my students’ favorite demonstrations. I complete a circuit with a hot dog. Electrical resistance in the hot dog produces heat—enough to “cook it” in a little over a minute (students then sample cooked slices dipped in ketchup!).


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In addition to illustrating principles of electrical circuits and electrical resistance, I use the hot dog cooker as a teachable moment to discuss safety. This past February, as I expanded my YouTube library, I created a video featuring the hot dog cooker.


Raleigh, a good friend and retired science teacher for whom I have a great deal of respect, questioned my decision to post such a video.

“I know it is out there without our help, but none of us ever wants a phone call from someone asking if we realize that child x hurt themselves because of our efforts. It’s more than the experiment.  The entire setup, under control of anyone other than a person with common sense and knowledge of electrical safety, becomes an invitation for a younger sibling to show off to a friend when responsible people aren’t looking.  The completed apparatus, left on a kid’s desk, is as dangerous as a loaded gun when other children might access it.”

Raleigh, and I (and others) debated this issue for several days. In the end, I opted to leave my video on YouTube.  I edited it to include a plea for students not to even ask a parent for help constructing a cooker unless the parent was an electrician.   I also shared this debate with my students. They seemed to appreciate the tricky nature of balancing the sharing of fascinating and important science with the need to keep folks safe. I felt comfortable with my decision to keep my video public. Then, in late April, Raleigh sent me the following article:

15-Year-Old Ohio Boy Dies While Conducting Science Experiment He Saw on YouTube

Morgan Wojciechwoski was electrocuted while attempting to make a Jacob’s Ladder. Apparently he based his efforts on a YouTube video. It’s not clear which video he watched (there are many); some do and some do not include clear safety cautions. According to reports, Morgan dreamed of becoming a scientist.

At this point, although I certainly feel for Morgan and all who knew him, I maintain my position on my hot dog cooker video. I will not give the excuse that there are already plenty of videos out there already as my defense. I cannot control others’ videos, only my own. Instead, I believe in being open and honest with students, and that knowledge leads to safety. That said, there are a number of fascinating demonstrations I will not share with students, nor put on YouTube. My fear with these demonstrations is that it would be too difficult for students not to hurt themselves if they tried to repeat them. I like to think in terms of “ beyond a reasonable doubt”.  I do not feel, beyond a reasonable doubt, that my students would remain safe if I shared these demonstrations.  So I don’t.

Which science experiments are “safe enough” to share? This is not a simple question; there are few absolutes in life. A student taking a standardized test might press too hard and snap a pencil tip. This shard could fly into a student’s eye. Still, I am unaware of any districts distributing safety goggles for test takers. A student could receive a dangerous burn or electrical shock while using a hot dog cooker (and this is far more likely than “test taker eye”). Here is one final thought on my hot dog cooker video. Would viewers be safer if I removed it from YouTube?  I believe the answer is “no” for two reasons. First, I focus on how it works not on how to build it.  Second, and more importantly, since I provide clear safety warnings within the video, my hope is that these warnings plant a seed of caution in the minds of my viewers if they explore other videos involving household electricity.

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This, however, is not the last word. What are your thoughts?





Author: stithscienceexchange

A middle school teacher for 30 years (well, 29...), I love sharing ideas with other educators, and anyone else interested in science education. I particularly love building science devices of all kinds and creating YouTube videos. My YouTube channel is Douglas Stith, and my personal website is www.stithsonianscience.com.

20 thoughts on “What Could Happen? or Safety First”

  1. Mr. Stith, I like that this is a topic being discussed and while I understand the dilemma at hand, I have to agree with your conclusion that our responsibility for things can only extend so far. That being said, I suppose that conclusion has been challenged in cases of hot coffee served at drive-through windows and the like. I want to add that if children are venturing online with a healthy amount of curiosity and gumption, good for them, but parents have to take responsibility here as well. If a child is “playing” with electricity, even in the name of science, there should be supervision…from the outset, when the child lands upon your video or anyone else’s. No matter how many warnings and safety tips there are, practicality dictates that children often do not listen or have the capacity for the best judgement. Parents should be in the know.


  2. I find the hot dog cooker dangerous, despite the warnings. Two exposed electrodes connected to house current is asking for trouble from an accident. GFCI’s should prevent this but they are electronic devices that may not function properly and not intended for this kind of accidental mishap. Furthermore, a face mask is not going to stop exploding hot grease from getting somewhere on your body. Although this is cute there are better ways to demonstrate electricity, resistance and heating.


    1. What Steve says is true. The question still is “Would YouTube viewers be safer with my hot dog cooker video removed?” I still maintain the answer is “no”, though I don’t know how to prove this. It also now occurs to me that I may need to divide viewers into two groups for this question: viewers who are/were my students and viewers who are not. Much discussion of safety accompanies the hot dog cooker in our electricity unit. This is missing from the video, and therefore for viewers who were never my students. Even so, viewers who stumble onto my video and watch it, and then are motivated to try to make a cooker, are likely more interested in science devices that the average person. If this is true, they may find many videos related to electrical devices. Will me video help them more carefully consider safety? I’d like to think so. A final note: Certainly the hot dog cooker is not the only way to demonstrate various properties of electricity, but I will say it is one that fascinates students as much or more than other demos.


    2. I agree that GFCI’s might not protect a person from a dead short even if it is installed correctly. I suspect that the best protection for students is parental knowledge and leadership when students explore this topic. I’ve been won over from a similar position as yours, “Don’t post the video,” because I know that Doug and other teachers are taking great care in describing the dangers of the experiment. When I went on YouTube and followed the subject I realized that there are varying levels of knowledge and concern for safety in them and Doug’s presentation makes safety clear while other videos do not. I think teachers should be working the main problem, not providing a relevant, challenging and interesting curriculum.


    3. I agree that GFCI’s might not protect a person from a dead short even if it is installed correctly. I suspect that the best protection for students is parental knowledge and leadership when students explore this topic. I’ve been won over from a similar position as yours, “Don’t post the video,” because I know that Doug and other teachers are taking great care in describing the dangers of the experiment. When I went on YouTube and followed the subject I realized that there are varying levels of knowledge and concern for safety in them and Doug’s presentation makes safety clear while other videos do not. I think teachers should be working the main problem, providing a relevant, challenging and interesting curriculum.


  3. It would be a shame not to share experiments that inspire kids to think and love science because of fear that one might make a mistake that could be a safety issue. As long as you’re aware and clear about safety precautions, you should share these ideas with students.


  4. I think our safety responsibilities in a classroom are a bit greater than those of a person creating a YouTube video. The main problem I saw in teaching before I retired was that we were not challenging our students and giving them a safe place to do relevant and interesting explorations. Doug’s videos and classroom ideas are exactly what we should be doing to encourage creative and deep thinking around science. I guess the key is for the presenting teacher to feel that the students have a genuine and comprehensive understanding of obvious safety issues at all times.

    Doug does that in his video on the hot dog cooker. The idea that only an “electrician” should build the experiment is exactly the information an involved parent needs to intelligently evaluate if they want their child to go ahead. If a student doesn’t inform the parent, or the parent is unable to be as active as they might like, we need to consider this in our classroom presentation when a clear danger is possible if students might enthusiastically try what we show them.

    This is especially true when teachers acknowledge the student who might be a bit too impulsive at times and not pause to consider consequences. As a student I was the “loose cannon” in my high school science classroom with little parental support but a complete willingness to try anything in science. Teachers are privileged to have a student who is fearless in learning science, but we are also responsible to acknowledge the dangers that might be created by such a student. I’m sure Doug is one of those teachers, but none of my high school teachers ever impressed me on safety issues of chemistry and electricity so I managed to burn and shock myself a number of times, luckily without damag…….what was I saying?


    1. After spending so much time disgusted by foul comments on YouTube and ESPN.com, I find it refreshing to read so much thoughtful dialogue in these comments. Thank you to all! I am new to this blog, but assume I can delete any comments that are not appropriate.

      Let me try to see if it is fair to generalize most comments:

      1. Comments on videos alone, however clear, will not guarantee safety.
      2. There is more potential danger with my hot dog cooker than with most of my other videos.
      3. There is good science, here, presented in an interesting way.

      So I think it gets back to is my video part of the safety problem or safety solution. The genie is out of the bottle. Access to all kinds of experiments is a given in the 21st century. Would my hot dog cooker video’s presence get viewers thinking more carefully about safety? If so would its deletion leave kids less safe? Probably impossible to measure this.


  5. With any science demo that might have some risk of injury, I think the discussion of curiosity vs safety is always so valuable. Hopefully a classroom discussion is led by someone who is not going to lecture on safety, but lead the students/viewers through a questioning process (“what could happen when…?”). Encouraging students to consider consequences at each step (in many contexts) can not be overdone. It’s such a life skill!!! This is hard to do in a video, unless you insert questions at certain points “What might happen if you leave this too long?” or something pertinent to the step. Love your process, Doug.


  6. I think the old expression, “you can lead a horse to water…..” Works here also. You can post all the safety do’s and don’t’ to a video and unfortunately the rules do not apply to some people. You did your responsibility as the teacher and, and again, it is up to the student to heed them! Again…well done Doug!


  7. This is an interesting debate. I wonder if your wording on the Youtube channel or your website is also part of the decision making process. If you are “inviting students to view the experiment” or you are “inviting students to try the experiment” may have two different viewpoints from the legal perspective. I am deviating from your discussion a little from the moral/ethical to the legal, but as a teacher in the building for which I am administrator there is a level of legal responsibility I must consider.


    1. I once did a 2nd grade science class where I showed how air pressure could easily prevent water from spilling from an inverted cup covered by an index card. My students loved it and I encouraged them to take the materials home (a small plastic up and an index card) to show their parents and explain the result.

      Soon after I was shocked to have a parent concerned over the experiment visit me after school. She told me that her daughter had burned her younger niece by showing the experiment to her. She used hot tea water instead of cold water and then spilled the hot water on her niece as she ended the experiment.

      It really made me think about my responsibilities when I teach. It would have been impossible to anticipate every possible way the experiment could be made dangerous. The same “safe” experiment done with a plastic cup, tap water and an index card becomes dangerous when you substitute bleach for the liquid, as well has hot tea water.

      I don’t think there is a legal “boilerplate” solution to this issue although I know districts have to consider these questions. A vague and all encompassing “disclaimer” isn’t the same as good curriculum and a teacher who is thoughtfully aware of her or his students.


  8. Given the video’s focus on how it works, not how to construct the project, keep the posting. We can’t bubble-wrap our children and protect them from everything in life.


  9. Let the hot dog cooker video stay! I agree with your rationale. We have to take special care on the internet because of its vast reach and unknown audience, and it seems you have taken care of this through the warnings.


  10. Growing up the only warning we received was a “do not try this at home” comment. YouTube has come a long way with pushing the limits of safety but I think a warning within the video is enough as there are far worse videos out there…


  11. Thanks for starting this discussion. I’m especially interested in what students think about how teachers should handle the question of safety. Sometimes we encourage students to experiment, but small changes in some experiments can suddenly become dangerous. Perhaps there isn’t a simple, “correct” answer?

    Rating is a terrific idea. Who on YouTube goes would “rate” the experiment and what would we do with a YouTube video that the creator feels is “safe enough” but others might disagree?


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