On stifling scientific curiosity, in the most egregious way possible.

headshot-thalerSMALLNo 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:



  1. You No · May 2, 2013

    Ruling by fear, even if it’s fear of an “outside,” is the mark of a tyrant. We live in a time where the general mindset seems to hold a slow, steady creep to absolute rule. Need evidence? Ask this young lady.

    Time to stand up and say Enough. We are not “normal”, we are not “controllable”, we are not afraid to make mistakes, nor to have people dislike us.

    We choose to be Free, and because we are self dependent, and we are not subjects of anyone, no matter how many they cloth in uniforms and how many legal fictions they frame, we will accept that Freedom has risks.

    “We hold these truths to be self evident…” wasn’t a joke. But just as they had to enumerate Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness back then, some people can forget and some will attempt to abuse.

    You are the “We,” don’t ever let them forget it.

  2. Andrew Carter · May 2, 2013

    It’s also the A.D.A.’s fault for telling the school to have her arrested. School administrators are notoriously clueless about the law, though I think that even they should have realized they didn’t have to call the authorities if they legitimately thought it was a science experiment gone bad. It’s also the cops fault for cuffing her when its clearly not necessary. But honestly, it’s really the public’s fault for not only tolerating but demanding politicians and school administrators institute inane zero-tolerance policies.

    As for this girl specifically, she should get out of this ok (with a lot of science street cred, too) unless there’s something that we don’t know about the story, which is possible. If the county is dumb enough to prosecute I can’t see them winning on those charges, since even the school administrators seem to admit that she didn’t realize the mixture was liable to explode, which should defeat the claim that she “knowingly” or “willfully” possessed a destructive device.

    I’m predicting the charges will be reduced to something that gets her probation and expungment of her record in a few years, if they don’t abandon the charges at all.

    [First paragraph modified as per commenter’s request ~Ed.]

  3. Angelo · May 3, 2013

    I didn’t blow anything up until college. I was a late bloomer.

  4. Ann Larabee · May 3, 2013

    I don’t really have any robust evidence for this, but I think that many famous scientists have blown things up in their childhoods. I seem to remember that Mary Leakey was expelled from school for setting a fire in a school lab, and Bernhard Schmidt, inventor of the Schmidt telescope, lost a hand making a pipe bomb. Oliver Sacks in his autobiography, recalls making “stinks and bangs.”

  5. Mary · May 3, 2013

    Hey everyone, if you want to help, I found a verified/legit fundraiser for Kiera’s legal fees (and potentially scholarship fund) here! It’s already raised $800+, every dollar and mention helps:


    VERIFIED by http://www.crowdtilt.com here: https://twitter.com/Crowdtilt/status/330475205183012864
    (All money will be distributed directly to Kiera)

  6. Beth Walker · May 4, 2013

    I can think of at least 3 incidents of adults (one of whom had a PhD) accidentally causing the same type of explosion with caustic & aluminum in the work place. When you’re experimenting with science, sometimes things go “boom!” The reaction was to clean it up & pass on the learning to others at work.

  7. tlcoles · May 8, 2013

    I’ve posted contact information for school officials and the state attorney’s office as well as the links to the fundraiser and the petition all here: http://supportkierawilmot.archertc.com/

    Expulsion and felony charges are not yet a done deal. Grassroots activism will make the difference in this case.

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