Will Kiera Wilmot’s arrest turn kids away from science?

In late April, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot, a now-former student at Bartow High School in Florida, was expelled from school, put in handcuffs, and taken away to the town’s Juvenile Assessment Center. Her crime? Outside the school building but within its grounds, she mixed two common household chemicals in a water bottle, causing a small explosion which caused no damage or injuries. Police charged her with “making, possessing or discharging a destructive device and with possessing or discharging weapons on school grounds.” The Polk Country School District have stood by the expulsion, stating that “kids should learn that there are consequences to their actions.” Kiera insists that she was conducting a science experiment, and thought that the chemical reaction would produce only smoke, not an explosion.

The story has spread through the Internet, with accusations that the punishment was motivated by racism and sexism, or by general chemophobia.  Kiera is described as a bright and honest kid who was simply curious about what would happen when she mixed these two things together.  I can’t comment on what went through her mind that morning, or through the minds of the school authorities or the police officers involved in the aftermath. But I will offer some other thoughts on what happened.

Several scientists have stated that this incident is a blow to science, as it will discourage young people from seeking answers and having fun doing so.  We certainly want to encourage all people to wonder about how the world works, and to seek answers to those questions. Sometimes, the only way to get an answer is to conduct an experiment – what happens if I mix this and that? Not all experiments are planned with a carefully thought-out step-by-step protocol, and occasionally things end up being messy, but doesn’t that make it even a bit more exciting?

Every person is born a scientist, as they spend the first years of their lives figuring out how their body works and how the world around them works.  They are curious about everything around them, exploring dark corners, touching things, putting them in their mouths, sometimes hurting themselves but always processing new information. As adults, we need to encourage and maintain the desire and the wonder of discovery. I once told the story of a 5-year-old who used the scientific method to conduct a short but useful experiment to confirm that a wine aerator really did make wine taste better. Of course, we want to encourage children to explore in a safe environment – so parents take the time to cover electrical sockets, barricade stairwells, lock cabinets and put hazardous materials where they cannot be grabbed and put into young, curious mouths.

While some people defend the scientific ideals in Kiera’s story, it is not as simple as saying that “she was arrested for doing science”.  We do need to acknowledge that an important part of being a scientist is making use of knowledge that has already been accumulated.  A teenager who sees a sign at a gas station banning open flames may be genuinely curious to know why. Knowing the danger involved, we would point him or her to an article or a video on YouTube.  We wouldn’t condone this teenager lighting a match next to a pump, explaining that “I was just curious…”

Kiera’s experiment was, in a way, the purest form of science – she wanted to see for herself what happened if she mixed “The Works” toilet cleaner and aluminium foil, so she tried it. (EDIT: I originally stated it was Drano and aluminium foil, but the police arrest report says differently.  Drano and “The Works” would have similar ingredients; Tyler Irving explains the chemical reaction that would have caused the explosion.)  But experiments conducted without adequate knowledge can have dangerous consequences – thank goodness she used small quantities of the reactants that morning. A quick search on the Internet shows that similar mixtures can be dangerous, and that it has been used as a “bottle bomb”. She may have already known that, as she did say to the police she expected to see some smoke.  There is nothing wrong with questioning what is already known, but having seen warnings of what could happen, she should have taken the proper precautions to conduct her experiment.

On that point, though, I do wonder what the attitudes are in her school towards proper independent study by students.  Is it encouraged and nurtured, or is it condemned and seen as a annoyance to the proper functioning of the school?  If Kiera had approached a chemistry teacher about wanting to conduct this experiment under a fume hood, would that teacher have allowed it? Would that teacher have taken a few minutes after school to do the experiment with her, with proper precautions? Would that teacher have turned it into a class demonstration for all to see? Or would that teacher have shooed her away, not wanting any information about this explosive mixture to be known?

There is also a real dilemma for school administrators in a case like this, because one student’s sincere attempt to satisfy her curiosity can look just like another student’s prank. Let’s face it, kids and teenagers are fascinated by stinky things that go boom, and usually not for altruistic reasons. Kids have always caused trouble with stink bombs and other nasty concoctions, and those who want to cause a bit of trouble would have no shame in telling the teachers afterwards that “I was just doing an experiment”. A school culture that has predefined consequences for infractions makes it difficult, even pointless, for a teacher to figure out a student’s true motives, and it does become a blunt object in the rare instance where the student’s interests appear genuine.

I do think Kiera must be reinstated to her school and all charges must be dropped.  A short suspension, or maybe an essay to reflect on what she did, would have been quite sufficient, so the time she has already served more than makes up for that.  I also wonder if Kiera was already known for asking challenging questions and showing strong interest in science classes – if so, perhaps a science teacher should offer to find her a mentor to nurture her interests in science.

Ashutosh Jogalekar states that this incident “definitely succeeded in squelching independent scientific curiosity in its students”. I don’t think that will be the case. Good scientists are tenacious in the face of adversity: when research is going badly, when answers are not easily found, even when people who ought to know better seem to discourage independent thought. If Kiera truly loves science, she will see this incident as a momentary setback.  She will persevere, and she will continue to explore and learn more about the world around her.  Maybe she’ll someday work in a laboratory, contributing to our global body of knowledge.  And maybe one day she will be called upon to mentor high school students, helping them journey independently along that exciting path of discovery.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Slothrr:

    Here is a petition urging the Polk County School District not to expel Kiera Wilmot, and to support their science students instead:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/polk-county-school-district-don-t-expel-kiera-wilmot

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