No doubt you’ve seen the recent news reports of a Florida high school student, by all accounts a model student with a clean disciplinary record, who was not only expelled, but arrested on felony charges, for conducting a relatively innocuous scientific experiment. I don’ t need to rehash the details, Danielle Lee has a good summary, with relevant links, over at Scientific American–Florida teen charged with felony for trying science.
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.
Science is messy. Science in messiest when we just start learning how to turn our curiosity into something testable. For many people, high school is the time when we learn to harness that curiosity. Many young scientists have a brush with danger due to a combination of curiosity and experimentation. High school programs should be nurturing that curiosity and fostering responsible experimentation, not punishing it. I asked my twitter followers, many of whom are practicing scientists, whether they, during high school, had accidentally caused an explosion in the course of scientific curiosity: