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Students participate in mock chemical disaster

When they arrived at the scene, a tank truck was on its side, slammed against a guard rail of the Tremont Street overpass, and leaking a corrosive chemical into Blackjack Creek. They found the driver unconscious, traffic backed up in both directions and emergency responders unsure of what to do.

Luckily for the Quest students at Hidden Creek Elementary, this was a scenario presented to them in class, rather than a real emergency. But in the next several weeks the advanced-placement students will determine every step of the emergency response from arrival to final cleanup in this mock emergency.

Quest teacher Kathy Watson explained the program’s goal is to stretch the students’ thinking skills.

“When in school they get a problem, it’s all outlined for them,” she said. “Often in life you get a mess and you have to figure out all the problems that are related. We’ve given them the mess, which is the spill, now they’re figuring out all the things related to it that they’re going to have to solve.”

Their task is to clean up the spill and keep local resi-dents safe, but they have to follow each small step to get there.

“They’re trying to determine all the little problems related to the big problem,” Watson said. “My goal is critical thinking and problem solving.”

The students come from elementary schools across the district to a classroom in Hidden Creek Elementary every Monday. This week, trios of students stand huddled over computers examining GIF maps determining how to reroute the heavy backup of traffic in their emergency scenario.

The students just learned that the chemical is sodium hydroxide, which emits toxic fumes when in contact with water.

Cars can’t travel up and down Bay Street, or any other main thoroughfare crossing the creek downstream, forcing the traffic south.

Peighton Teachenor, 11, of Mullenix Elementary, and Lila Tauton, 11, of Orchard Heights Elementary, sketched out a map in pencil plan routing traffic through Highway 16, but other students are using GIF mapping on laptop computers.

The computers show the creek, roads and any area hospitals, schools or police departments.

The students said they prefer this kind of lesson to the straight forward education style they get in their regular classroom.

“This really requires critical thinking,” Tauton said. “It’s (not as much) about getting the right answer as how you got the answer.”

The students aren’t left without the best information. The students meet several times with emergency response professionals, including Phyllis Mann, director of Kitsap County’s Department of Emergency Management and Steve Wright from South Kitsap Fire and Rescue.

The students get an opportunity to figure out the solution to a particular problem themselves, then talk with professionals about the situation.

The students got a first-hand lesson in decision-making under pressure this week, when they accidentally received incorrect information about the chemical in the truck.

Initially, students were given an identification number leading them to sulfuryl chloride, a highly volatile chemical that reacts strong when in contact with water.

When looking a second time, the students realized it was actually sodium hydroxide, which is not quite as dangerous.

In the process, they’re also learning about local, state and federal responses.

Watson told the students it was a national emergency, which could involve assistance from the state and federal governments. In their mock scenario, the students are informing national officials of any information they learn along the way.

The project will continue for several more weeks, with the students spending the bulk of their Monday time on each smaller problem to fix the larger issue.

The Quest program is taking nominations for next year’s students. To nominate a student, call (360) 443-3099.

Students in grades 2 through 9 living in the South Kitsap service area are eligible for testing.

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