Here’s the story of the week: A 16-year-old named Kiera Wilmot, a student at Bartow High School in Florida, mixed some toilet-bowl cleaner with aluminum foil in a plastic bottle in a field behind the school. There was a chemical reaction and a small explosion (smoke but no fire). Nobody was injured and no school property was damaged.
This is, as far as I can tell, a pretty standard chemistry demonstration. To put it in perspective: on my first day of high school chemistry, the teacher put a small amount of an alkali metal (it might’ve been potassium, but I don’t remember) into a beaker of water. However, he underestimated the amount of metal that he used, and there was an explosion – the beaker blew up, sending shards of glass around the room, and the entire school was filled with pink smoke. Nobody was hurt, there was very little damage, and the school was evacuated for a few minutes until the smoke cleared up. As far as I know, there were no consequences for this little demonstration-gone-wrong.
Kiera Wilmot’s experiment was probably rather less explosive than that. Plus, she was experimenting of her own accord, from her own curiosity – a bit of initiative which I believe ought to be celebrated. But Kiera Wilmot wasn’t celebrated; instead, she was expelled and arrested. This isn’t a terrorist building bombs. It’s a 16-year-old girl learning science. Maybe she caused an explosion, and maybe she wasn’t going about slaking her curiosity in the safest way, but she didn’t hurt anyone, she isn’t a danger to society, and there was definitely no cause to handcuff her and take her to a juvenile facility.
Now, I may be a bit more of a Darwinist than some others, but even the most cautiously scientific person would have to admit that this is being too careful. Maybe we as a society do need a label that says “Caution: May Contain Nuts” on a nut mix, I won’t go on that rant here, but do we really need to arrest a child for taking the initiative to explore on her own, simply because she didn’t take every safety precaution? In a nation that is trying to focus on improving our science education system to keep up with the rest of the world, why are we discouraging a kid from trying science? She should have been taught to use the proper safety precautions (goggles: they’re important), maybe grounded, maybe even suspended, but arrested and expelled? It’s excessive to the point of absurdity, and it probably took away one of our nation’s future scientists.
Everyone, especially kids, especially female kids, especially female kids who are minorities, ought to be encouraged to explore, to practice science, and to do so safely but with abandon. If we lean too far on the side of safety, we take away the sense of wonder that comes from exploration. We take away the inspiration to do science. And that is an incredibly stupid mistake to make.