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Emily LakdawallaMay 3, 2013

Thoughts on Kiera Wilmot: Mentor curiosity to create future scientists

Please bear with me -- this blog entry has nothing to do with planets but a lot to do with society.

For the last two days, my Twitter feed has been roiling with outrage about the story of Kiera Wilmot (followed up here and here; search on the hashtag #KieraWilmot for a taste). Here are the alleged facts of the case: on Monday, April 22, a 16-year-old girl brought an 8-ounce water bottle containing a small amount of drain cleaner (which contains hydrochloric acid) and some aluminum foil with her to school, Bartow High School in Polk County, Florida. According to the incident report, the idea was an unnamed friend's. While on the school property but unsupervised by a teacher, before school hours, she mixed the two materials because she was curious about what would happen. She expected some kind of chemical reaction and some smoke. Indeed, the hydrochloric acid and aluminum reacted, producing aluminum chloride and hydrogen gas, creating a small amount of smoke and a loud bang as the pressure of the hydrogen gas popped the bottle. It was a loud bang but a small event; no one was injured and no property was damaged.

Alarmed by the bang, a school official, Dan Durham investigated, and Kiera "told him she was conducting a science fair experiment." Durham "then checked with Wilmot's science teacher who advised in no way was [sic] Wilmot's actions part of any class work." This is where the story diverges from sanity. Durham called the police. The police arrived, read Kiera her Miranda rights, arrested her, handcuffed her, and took her into custody. They contacted State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty, who ordered the police to charge Kiera Wilmot as an adult with two felonies: "possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property F.S.S. 790.115 and making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device F.S.S. 790.161." Meanwhile, under the school's zero-tolerance policy, Wilmot has been expelled. Wilmot is a student who Principal Durham described as "a good kid" who "has never been in trouble before.... She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don't think she meant to ever hurt anyone. She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did.  Her mother is shocked too."

My Twitter feed is going crazy because of course it mostly contains scientists, and there are few of us scientists who did not play with fire or chemicals growing up, because we were curious to see what would happen. And we knew it wasn't entirely safe and that our parents wouldn't want us to blow things up, so we often did it when parents weren't around. Mom, don't read the following sentence: I set lots of fires in our backyard in Dallas and tried burning all kinds of different stuff because I wanted to see what would happen. Seeing matter transform before our eyes is magical. It's unfortunate but true that it's easier to explore this kind of transformation in destructive ways (burning things, disassembling previously perfectly functioning machines) than in constructive ways -- you have to take things apart before you can learn how to build things. Although this was the first I'd heard of them, so-called "Drano bombs" are evidently popular with kids, most of whom presumably want to just make something blow up, though they have sometimes been used for pranks, with potentially dangerous consequences. A blogger named Southern Fried Scientist has assembled stories of scientists blowing things up as kids, and others have pointed out that neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann, who will be leading President Obama's much balyhooed brain-mapping project, tells a harrowing childhood story of her and friends stealing sodium metal from her chemistry laboratory and blowing a toilet off the wall while in high school.

I have complicated feelings about these stories, because I know that this kind of self-driven inquisitive drive to find out how things work is at the root of what makes good scientists. Yet, as a parent of two young girls, I have concerns about children playing with things that go boom without sufficient thought for the consequences. (Please, please, find some other way of satisfying your curiosity than throwing a lump of sodium metal into a toilet....)

There's a lot that is still not known about the specific incident at Bartow High School, primarily because (as far as I can tell) neither Kiera nor her parents have made any public statements, so we do not have her side of the story. On the face of it, the punishment appears to be insanely out of proportion to the crime. She is being expelled from school because of a zero-tolerance policy that prevents the school principal from applying any discretion in the case. And then she is, totally inexplicably, being charged as an adult with violent felonies by a state attorney. For context, the same state attorney, just days later, did not charge another teen with any crime after that child accidentally killed his own brother. Glotfelty described that event, accurately in my opinion, as a "tragic accident." Pressing charges would not bring the dead child back to life, and the surviving brother's personal horror is only beginning. Kiera's experiment was stupid but not tragic, causing no harm to anyone or anything. It was also, according to one retired lawyer, likely not a crime, due to Kiera's evident lack of violent intent and the fact that the device was likely not actually destructive. She deserves punishment and needs to consider what might have happened, but such punishment can be accomplished within family and school. Why charge her with a crime at all, and why charge her as an adult? It's senseless. Lack of discretion got her expelled, too much discretion got her formally charged.

One question that a lot of people are asking is: why did she do this at school? We don't know, because Kiera and her family haven't spoken publicly. There could be lots of different reasons. In her place I might have pulled something similar at school because I thought my friends would think it was cool. Except I wouldn't have done it unsupervised, because I had awesome science teachers who I talked to a lot, and they would've said, if you want to do that experiment before school, fine, but let's do it safely under the fume hood and talk about what reaction is taking place here, okay? Ooh, and then maybe we can trap that hydrogen gas that's being evolved and then you'll really get to see something explode. Kiera either did not seek out, or did not have access to, such guidance for her curiosity, we don't know which; all we know is that it was the bad choice to pick an unsupervised spot at school for the place that she would test what would happen when she mixed drain cleaner and aluminum foil that has landed her in so much trouble.

As a teen I did things as stupid as what Kiera did, as did most of the scientists on my Twitter feed. I've even been arrested for things much more stupid than what Kiera did (misdemeanor theft, shoplifting when I was 14 or 15, if you must know; I was sentenced to a weekly sort of community group therapy). For some reason, nobody charged me with felonies as an adult when I did those things. Adults' responses to my stupid actions were always geared toward shaping me into a better and more productive member of society. It is hard to avoid the supposition that the reason for this disparity is racial -- Kiera is African-American, and of course, I'm white. There is plenty of evidence for a racial disparity in the enforcement of school discipline.

Teenagers are smart in some ways and incredibly stupid in others. They often fail to predict the consequences of their actions. That word, "consequences," has come up a lot in the coverage of this story. Going back to the original article, the principal is quoted as saying "We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions." Yes, this is an important lesson, and an important one for teenage kids. But let's examine the consequences of convicting someone of a felony, shall we? I think perhaps we should also examine the consequences of failing to provide educational environments in which students can safely satisfy their intellectual curiosity, and of failing to use teachable moments like Kiera Wilmot's "bad choice" to encourage curious kids to experiment with their world in safe ways. Predicting all of the possible ways an experiment can go bad and taking the right kinds of precautions is what many engineers do for a living. Did Kiera have parents or teachers who could have or would have supervised her in trying out this and many more experiments? We don't know. But even if she did before, she doesn't now, because she has been expelled and arrested. If the felony charges are allowed to go through, this promising child's future is over. I do think this is wrong, very wrong, and I encourage readers to sign these and ACLU petitions if you agree.

When I attended the American Astronomical Society meeting last year, I was uncomfortably aware of how the meeting was even whiter and more male than my usual planetary science meetings. Then I stepped in to a public outreach event where Bobak Ferdowsi was speaking to high school students, and that was the one place where I was in a diverse room, with boys and girls, whites and Blacks and Koreans and Latinos. What is preventing these kids from growing up to become the scientists speaking in all the rest of the rooms in that hall? Kiera Wilmot's story is an example of the ill-guided, childish curiosity of an African-American girl being utterly crushed. Not only is her curiosity being crushed, but with the felony charges, every hope she has of being a productive member of society is being crushed, too. Perhaps she's not alone. This does not make our society safer or more productive; quite the opposite.

So what can we do, either generally for students from underserved communities, or specifically for Kiera Wilmot, to make a path for them to become scientists and engineers? For Kiera's specific case, please follow Scientific American blogger and biologist DNLee, who is tracking the story and trying to answer that question. For the more general case, I don't have great answers, but this whole episode is making me realize that one constructive thing to do is to work to connect underserved kids with mentoring and support for following their scientific curiosity.

It seems like Science Fair is one way to do this, but Science Fair has this disturbing trend where only really rich kids who are mentored by professional scientists and doing projects that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars appear to be winning recognition. [EDIT: I just remembered that it's a post on well-meaning discouragement of poor students from doing Science Fair projects that brought DNLee's blog to my attention in the first place.] A stray remark on Twitter yesterday caught my eye: journalist Jeff Foust quoted NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden as saying that 90% of new engineers at Johnson Space Center participated in FIRST Robotics programs as kids. Get FIRST into underserved schools!! But maybe it doesn't need to be anything so formal. Maybe all we need is after-school clubs supplied with a teacher or parent, safety glasses, and a fire extinguisher, and let kids safely do what they want to do -- take things apart, and blow a few things up -- so they can begin to learn how things work, and then, even before they grow up, kids can start to create new things that work better.


UPDATE May 4: Journalist Jennifer Welsh at Business Insider has posted an interview with the family's lawyer: "Hoping to prevent felony charges from being filed." The lawyer indicates that signing the petitions is helpful.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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