Earlier this week Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles-based outfit that's trying to reinvent education, launched a pretty amazing project called the STEAM Carnival. The goal? Get kids into science, technology, engineering, and math by bringing carnival-style excitement and experiments—what they refer to as "lasers, robots and fire"—into schools. Well, as amazing as that sounds, their laser and fire efforts probably won't be appreciated in Bartow, Florida.
Last week 16-year-old Bartow High School student Kiera Wilmot recreated the popular-on-YouTube experiment of mixing toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil together in a plastic bottle because she was curious about what would happen. It's the kind of experiment the STEAM Carnival folks (or the MythBusters crew) have probably done countless times. It's the kind of experiment I used to do as a teenager when I'd mix random household chemicals together just to see what would happen.
Wilmot didn't do it in class, opting instead to test out her experiment behind the school cafeteria. Well, after the relatively tame explosion, Wilmot's school called the police and she was arrested and charged as an adult with two felonies, "possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property and making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device." Instead of encouraging her future in chemistry, the school also expelled her, and if the criminal justice system has its way, she'll spend years in jail.
How is that we talk so big in America about wanting kids to be scientists so that we can compete in the global economy, only to turn around and arrest them when they actually take the initiative to engage and experiment? Given the climate of terror in America, the school cited zero-tolerance policies—a stern talking to or maybe an in-school suspension just would not do—leading many to suggest that since Wilmot is black there's another element at play.
Without a doubt this story is about race as well as the egregious over-reaction of the school administrators. Zero tolerance policies, like the one that forced Kiera Wilmot’s expulsion from Bartow High School, disproportionately affect students of color and Florida has the largest School-to-Prison Pipeline in the country. The punishment is consistent with systemic marginalization of minority students in American public schools. This is not the case of a student willfully endangering her classmates or school. This is a case of an intelligent, curious student performing a perfectly mundane act of independent inquiry, an inquiry that happens in innumerable variations in schools throughout the country. Educators know how to respond to inquisitive (even recklessly inquisitive) students, and that response is never prison.
Biologist DNLee, who writes for Scientific American, also takes on the racial aspect of Wilmot's situation, noting that "with this type of thinking is it any wonder black and Latino children are under-represented in Science Fairs?" Lee goes on to say
I can't name a single scientist or engineer, who hadn't blown up, ripped apart, disassembled something at home or otherwise cause a big ruckus at school all in the name of curiosity, myself included. Science is not a clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps.
It's encouraging to see the scientific community is also standing up and supporting Wilmot with the Science Is Not a Crime hashtag on social media. They're encouraging people to share stories of their explosions or tweet images of them. They're also circulating a petition demanding that the charges against Wilmot be dropped and that she be reinstated in school. Lee also suggests putting pressure on by contacting Bartow's school district and law enforcement officials:
Call the Polk County Superintendent, Dr. John Stewart at 863-534-0521.
Call the Bartow High School Principal, Ronald Pritchard at 863-534-7400
Call or email the Bartow Police Department at 863-534-5034 or lbryan.pd@cityofbartow
Let's make sure students like Wilmot get to take the initiative and engage in science without being criminalized. And let's challenge the belief that science is something that only happens in a classroom when teachers decide it's time, or when a STEAM Carnival comes to town.
Click here to add signing the petition demanding charges against Wilmot be dropped to your GOOD "to-do" list.