Banning Dihydrogen Monoxide

The last day of class before winter break kicks off can be a crazy one. Students are jazzed up with all sorts of energy. I wanted to throw them a curve ball to make space for some thought so they came in to the following:

From National Public Radio (United States)

“A Web site is raising alarm about the chemical compound dihydrogen monoxide. The odorless, colorless substance is abundantly available in liquid, solid and gaseous form. Its basis is the unstable radical hydroxide, the components of which are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds. One city in Orange County, Calif., considered banning Styrofoam cups because they contained the compound.”


Website: DHMO Homepage

The class was divided into two large groups that represented those who want DHMO banned and those against the proposed ban. A small group of students represented Orange Co. Commissioners. I pulled information off of the DHMO web page and provided this to students as their research. They now had approximately 35 minutes to prepare for a debate. Meanwhile, the small group set up parameters for the debate. I sat back and listened to groups banter about ideas.

One student eventually came up to me asking for the chemical formula of DHMO. Smiling, I let him know that he had enough background to figure it out with the help of his peers. He returned but kept bringing it up to the group. “I know that ‘di’ is two so there are 2 hydrogens but what is oxide?”

“It’s oxygen – like in carbon dioxide,” came a reply.

“Yeah, and mono is one so there is one oxygen,” he responded. “But what does this mean.”

“We’ll get back to that later,” spoke another student who pressed for discussion about the harmful effects of DHMO.

This one student kept working on the chemical formula. He had all of the pieces but it simply did not make sense to him in light of all the information provided on the DHMO page. Meanwhile, the debate had started with quite eloquent initial addresses from both groups. As the debate progressed, the one student kept checking in with me as he became more and more convinced that it was, in fact, water. Talk about timing – I could not have asked for a better sequence. Just as the groups were given time to discuss prior to making final arguments, he figured it out. He whispered to his group, “It’s water.”

Hushed exclamations of “Huh!” and “What!” were quickly followed by a lot of giggles. This happened to be the group that opposed the ban and they had been dealt with a trump card. Final arguments opened with the group supporting the ban strongly declaring that DHMO needed to be banned in order to protect the rights of future generations.

The response was nicely done as the girl slowly began addressing points made by the “banners” and then let the bomb drop. “We can’t ban it because it’s water.”

Oh, the look on the faces of the opposing students was priceless. We wrapped up by listening to the NPR pod cast and a discussion about the credibility of web pages. Given the chaos that can be generated by a group of 8th graders in the waning hours before winter break, it was quite the enjoyable class.

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