June 24, 2002
Science demos ignite controversy
by Jeanette Knutson
According to the
Last April, Woodinville Fire Marshall Joel Kuhnhenn visited the classroom of Woodinville High School chemistry teacher Larry Gulberg.
Said Kuhnhenn, "What I saw violated the Uniform Fire Code adopted by the state of Washington. I wrote up some code infractions and gave them to the school administration."
For the violations, Gulberg was suspended for four days with pay. He also received two letters of reprimand in his file, one from the principal, one from the superintendent.
Mr. Gulberg Speaks
"You asked what message I would like to send (to the public). My guess, it would be this. One, in light of 9/11 and in light of Columbine, we are afraid to let chemistry teachers take their explosions outside. I used to do things outside that were fun, like hydrogen balloons. They would blow up and people would hear it and go, 'Oh, that's just the chemistry teacher.'
"Then, after Columbine, (administrators) started ducking under their desks and we were told, 'OK, don't do this anymore.' So I started doing (my experiments) inside. And I'm now told I can't do them inside either.
"So I guess I would like to see changed the paranoia that we have because doing explosions is not inherently evil, I don't think.
"And the other message is I don't think the superintendent should be able to accuse people of bad moral character when they have set off the fire alarm by doing a stupid prank, and I admit I've done some stupid pranks that I wouldn't do again.
"So those are the main two messages. And the other one is I wish administrators would just deal with people in a less formal way, one-on-one, person-to-person, mano ˆ mano and not have to get lawyers involved in writing their letters for them so they say the right things. That bothers me."
The Administration's Viewpoint
Said Pamela Steele, spokeswoman for Northshore School District, "Nobody is criticizing this man's teaching ability. Everyone agrees he's an excellent teacher.
"The issue we have to concern ourselves with is a much larger issue, an issue of safety.
"We have to think about maintaining a safe environment for everyone, as well as issues of insurance and liability.
"Say (the administration) heard from 40 strong supporters of Larry Gulberg. How many do you suppose we'd hear from if one student or teacher were critically injured or killed? The public (would be clamoring), 'Where are your policies and why aren't they being followed?'
"Listen, the district knows good teachers are hard to get and even harder to keep, particularly science, math and special education teachers. And we also know every district has so much dead wood, people retired on the job. And here we have this teacher who brings the subject of chemistry to life for kids. It's hard to think about reprimanding him. But we're the district. We have to look at the big picture."
Senior Brian Cattle said, "Mr. Gulberg is an excellent teacher, the best teacher I ever had. He is an inspiration both in and outside of the classroom.
"I just think the administration felt it had to do something, address an issue that didn't exist. Gulberg's been doing the exact same demonstrations for 25 years. No one has ever been injured. I never felt unsafe in class.
"And about his questionable moral character ... this man is a devout Christian. His interest is in getting others interested in chemistry, and not just the great students. When kids see (the experiments) happen, they want to read, they want to do the math problems. His classes have a universal appeal.
" ... The thing that was most upsetting was that Mr. Gulberg was suspended the four most important days of the school year, four days before we had to take the Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry test. (Most colleges give college credit to students who pass the AP Chemistry test.) It was horrendously bad to have him gone then. We needed to prepare for the test. I think it showed lack of foresight on the part of the administration to penalize the class this way."
Recent graduate Nels Berg said, "Mr. Gulberg was a very good teacher. He doesn't just teach the material given to him. He makes learning fun. He prefers to get to know the students, rather than having them come through the class never knowing who they are. This makes it easier to learn."
As to Gulberg's having "bad moral character," Berg said, "I don't agree. He is a good man. The thing that is really frustrating is that last year (the administration) accused him of the same thing. Students and teachers pulled together, signing a petition vouching for him. And now they've gone and done it again."
John Hino, also a recent grad, said, "Gulberg is the best chemistry teacher in Northshore School District. He devotes so much time to students.
"The letters of reprimand are ridiculous. The district should support him. He's an awesome teacher. He pushes kids to the limit. I'm disappointed in the administration. I don't understand why they're doing this (putting letters of reprimand in his file). I don't know what they're thinking.
"I always trusted him in class. I felt safe because he knows what he's doing. He's done it for 25 years."
Neil Jackson, who will be a senior next year, said, "This makes me sad. Mr. Gulberg is a great guy. He inspired me to learn and experiment outside of the classroom.
"I feel very safe in his classroom. He considers safety to be paramount. He'll walk around the room, even while we're doing the most mundane of experiments, for instance, with vinegar, and say, 'Hey, wear your safety goggles.' We almost feel mothered by him.
"Mr. Gulberg is the best teacher I have ever had. Woodinville is lucky to have him. He has a PhD from Stanford. He's so full of life and vigor. Besides, it's not an everyday occurrence to have explosions and fireballs in the classroom. His experiments are not done ... as recreation, but rather for teaching purposes, for enlightenment.
"And those four days he was suspended were the most grievous disruption of the education process I have ever known."
Senior Eric Heye explained that besides teaching his regular chemistry classes, Gulberg supervises the Science Club. He oversees preparation for the Science Bowl (WHS won the regional trophy this year and went on to compete nationally in Washington, D.C.), the Science Olympiad, the Techno Bowl (WHS placed first and second in this computer-related competition), and the Orca Bowl (where WHS team members won an oceanography cruise on Puget Sound to see how the University of Washington records data about animal life, water temperatures, water depths, etc.).
"Gulberg," said Heye, "works in all these different disciplines with Science Club members to prepare them for these scientifically based competitions. He wants us to have fun and learn as much as possible."