Posted: Monday, May 6th, 2013
Early in the morning, on the grounds of Bartow high School in Bartow, Florida, Kiera Wilmot conducted a science experiment by mixing some common household chemicals in a plastic water bottle. The chemical reaction produced a small explosion that caused the top to pop off and some smoke to rise out of the bottle. Nobody was hurt, and no damage was caused to school property.
In addition to being expelled from school, Wilmot is being charged for “possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds” and “discharging a destructive device.” There’s a chance she will be tried as an adult.
DNLee, a blogger at Scientific American, touches on some of the bigger social implications of the story, while making some disturbing observations about what she sees as the broken state of science education in this country:
I’ve witnessed beautifully remodeled lab classrooms with supplies, computers, and equipment — all locked away, never to be touched by most students.
Why? Some teachers and administrators worry about damage and wear and tear or shenanigans. But the same administrators will brag about their facilities and take visiting dignitaries to tour their fancy facilities? What/s the point?! The kids aren’t getting a chance to experiment and learn.
[Keira's] expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!
Here’s the observation that stands out to me the most:
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 clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps.
It’s a beautiful point. In response, scientists are now backing Keira on Twitter by tweeting about all the stuff they’ve blown up over the years.
It’s cool to see that the story is prompting a discussion about science and science education in the United States, but I really hope it helps initiate some greater dialogue about the way we discipline students in general. I can’t help but see some big issues with the way people in positions of power are handling the case.
The local school district felt that expulsion was a fair punishment for Wilmot because kids should learn that “there are consequences to their actions.” A lot of critics of this decision are responding by pointing out—accurately—that Kiera got near-perfect grades and had a perfect behavior record. But the people who bring up this objection seem to be functioning under this weird, invisible assumption about what constitutes appropriate punishments for teens, and it begs the question—Even if Wilmot weren’t a “perfect” kid, would she still deserve to have an example made of her? The kind of punishment doled out by the school is in no way rehabilitative—and if Keira’s found guilty, we all know that a felony conviction would basically constitute a death sentence for whatever professional or academic future she may have had to begin with.
The alternative is problematic, too. Let’s say we were to argue for a “rehabilitative” as opposed to a punitive response. We’d have to deal with the very real possibility that we’re effectively trying to “rehabilitate” a kid for being curious.
I went to a private high school, and I knew some guys who stole a chunk of raw sodium from the chemistry room and tossed it into the lap pool to watch it blow up (not even as an experiment, but as a prank). They didn’t expect it to sink ten feet before exploding. That’s exactly what it did, and it left a fat crater at the bottom of the pool.
Unlike Keira, these kids had some valuable social capital in the school and community (via their parents) that allowed them to get off the hook—relatively speaking. They had to pay for the 400 something dollars in damage they caused to school property. At distance, this looks like a pretty reasonable punishment. It certainly conveys the whole “do this stuff in a controlled environment (i.e. don’t blow up the school pool)” idea pretty well.
What I’m skeptical of is the idea that ruining a kid’s life teaches that kid anything besides the fact that we as a society simply don’t care about individual students who take risks and happen to make some mistakes—we only care about using those kids as a way to make sure all the other kids continue to keep their heads down.
As an educator myself, I can’t help but find that idea terrifying.