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Scientists’ Support for Kiera Wilmot #Solidarity4Wilmot

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here’s what we now know.

Kiera Wilmot was re-creating the Drano Aluminum foil experiment at school. She was outside, before the morning bell. She recreated one of those Wow! Science experiments, the kind we see on Myth Busters or You’ve Been Warned! Folks love those shows. They love doing that crazy stuff at home (although they tell you not to). Who’s the kind of person to push the envelope and risk a little safety just to find out if/how/why? A scientist or an engineer. Outside of the context of today’s alarmist communities, 20 years ago folks would have wagged a finger, “You crazy kids!”

Frankly, that is what most scientists are saying. “I blew something up a school once, too!” in this overwhelming consensus post. The difference now is that most of those people have degrees in science and engineering (in fact, they may be teaching your sons and daughters RIGHT now. Bwaaahahahaha!) not awaiting a court date like Kiera Wilmot.

Here is the incident report:

Wilmot Arrest by Tim Elfrink

Some have asked, ‘why did she do it at school?’

I don’t know, maybe because there is more space at school than at home. I used to take my little side-projects to school, too. More space, more resources, and I wanted to show off to my friends.

But I have my own questions.

Why is she being charged as an adult? What about her made her unworthy of legal protection and privacy that we normally afford to juveniles? Why do the local justice and public school systems of Bartlow, Florida, think it’s perfectly fair to team up against a kid?

She said it was a science experiment but the science teacher said he didn’t know about an experiment.

So, it’s only science if the science teacher says it’s science? Some folks have said that since it wasn’t a class activity (or that the science teacher couldn’t vouch for it) then the girl was merely making an excuse. As if science can only happen under the sanctioned approval and awareness of the science teacher.

Forbid this child had an authentic, self-derived interest in science that hadn’t been formally assigned to her!

With this type of thinking is it any wonder Black and Latino Children are under-represented in Science Fairs. If everyone around you has the idea that only legitimate science experiments are those sanctioned and prescribed to students, then when are students expected to explore independent authentic science interests? In Bartow, Florida, I guess the answer is no.

Adults, we have a problem. We are totally failing at preparing this next generation for adult hood. I personally believe that teens require more supervision than toddlers. They require guidance, instruction, and the opportunity to try out new knowledge. That means letting them take (some) measured risks and helping them recover even if it was all bad.

I don’t like what we’re doing now. We’re policing them and criminalizing their behavior. Some communities are willing to throw a child away for stupid, silly, and yes sometimes unsafe antics, that have been done since the beginning of time. Is this how we prepare the next generation of citizens, leaders, workers, scientists? Is there no opportunity for growth, development, recovery?

This child (and so many like her) deserves her life back. Many have asked me, what can we do? Here is a start.

Contact the School Authorities

Polk County Superintendent, Dr John Stewart. Phone: 863-534-0521 Fax: 863-519-8231
Bartow High School Principal, Mr Ronald Pritchard. Phone: 863-534-7400
Contact the Bartow Police Department
Phone: 863 534-5034 Fax: 863-534-5030 Email: lbryan.pd@cityofbartow

Contact the Bartow Attorney General who named the charges for her.

Sign the Petition to have charges dropped. This young girl is being charged with a violent felony. There was no violence. There was no injury. There was no damage. If left alone, this young could face serious jail time or at the very least be introduced into the criminal justice system. Nothing about this situation or this young person’s history suggest that this is a fair outcome for her.

Share your own story of foolish science shenaningans. I am so proud of how the (online) science community has stood up in support of Kiera . We recognize the possible danger in what she did, because we’ve done it ourselves. By sharing your own story, we want the school officials as well as the Bartow, Florida, to see what she did in the context of scientific curiosity (and child development) — #ScienceIsnotCrime. Moreover, I think it will help her attorneys outline a defense for her. Thousands of scientists and engineers vouch for her. Maybe they’ll call expert witnesses. I hope it doesn’t get that far.

I know many of you want to do more. I completely understand. And we should. The only thing is it’s not clear to me how to contact the family and let them know that we are available to them. Making sure Kiera is safe is first. Clearing her of these charges is the priority. Offers to mentor, teach, do outreach or even start a college fund are secondary to securing her permanent freedom as soon as possible.

So I don’t know where to point you related to offers to contribute to a defense fund or to mentor/teach her or even start a scholarship fund. We may have to hold tight. In the meantime we can show our solidarity for Kiera Wilmot online and with our petitions to the Bartlow authorities.

I also think we need to use this opportunity to initiate some very hard conversations about Mentored opportunities for underserved students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Her case and the reaction of people really shed light on how hungry all youth are for hands-on, minds-on engagement. I recommend hosting community discussions about STEM outreach to teens as a method to deter youth from negative outcomes. If anyone is in a position to make proposals to the National Urban League and the NAACP, then I recommend this topic. Education and STEM access are civil rights issues. We need to talk about how this service community should include more African-American Scientists & STEM as a way to promote Positive Youth Development in Minority Youth.

If you feel so inclined to throw your name into the hat to assist in some way, then please fill out the Google Document. That way, once we learn details, such as the family lawyer or if a defense/scholarship fund has been set up, then we can reach those individuals directly.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. slothrr 11:42 am 05/3/2013

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

    Link to this
  2. 2. DNLee 11:52 am 05/3/2013

    Thank you.

    Link to this
  3. 3. bodhirayo 12:04 pm 05/3/2013

    Thanks,@slothrr! Signed the petition.

    If the young Ms. Wilmot’s reputation were not at stake here, the Polk County DA’s bizarre over reaction in this case would be laughable. Somebody should do a sanity check over at the DA’s office. Clearly one of the high ranking staffers there has lost their marbles…

    Link to this
  4. 4. IllyriaOne 12:34 pm 05/3/2013

    “Why is she being charged as an adult? What about her made her unworthy of legal protection and privacy that we normally afford to juveniles? Why do the local justice and public school systems of Bartlow, Florida, think it’s perfectly fair to team up against a kid?”
    Because of her skin color.

    Link to this
  5. 5. bodhirayo 12:41 pm 05/3/2013

    And thank you @DNLee for posting this story! I just spoke with Jim Gouvellis, publisher of Bartow’s local newspaper, the Polk County Democrat, and emailed him the links to this blog post and the petition on
    In gratitude,
    Bodhi Goforth
    Eugene OR USA

    Link to this
  6. 6. bodhirayo 12:48 pm 05/3/2013

    just sent Jim the twitter link as well… :)

    Link to this
  7. 7. bodhirayo 12:59 pm 05/3/2013

    oops, I misspoke myself in that first comment. I spoke with the The DA’s office and they are “still investigating. no charges filed yet.” I should have said: “the Bartow Police Department’s bizarre over-reaction…”

    Link to this
  8. 8. khill 2:33 pm 05/3/2013

    She made a bomb. Not a very powerful one, but to just call it a ‘science experiment’ is a little silly. Name one science fair where explosions have ever been a valid entry. She wasn’t on the quest for new knowledge, she wanted to hear something go BANG and maybe impress her friends.

    I did the same thing with dry ice when I was about her age, so I don’t think it is a horrible crime or anything, but doing it on school campus was certainly dumb. Suspension is probably the right punishment and expulsion definitely overkill.

    However, going 180 degrees in the opposite direction and pretending this was some noble endeavor won’t help matters much. This has nothing to do with science or experimentation, this has to do with kids making small but stupid decisions, and the appropriate consequences.

    I would happily sign the petition except for it’s obvious overreaction that distorts the situation almost as much as the school did. “Science students should be supported in safely pursuing their interests..” That’s the exact point. What she did WAS NOT SAFE. Again, I have done plenty of unsafe things in my life and I believe that there is no benefit in expelling her or charging her with a crime, but neither should we hold her up as an example to be emulated.

    Link to this
  9. 9. khill 2:38 pm 05/3/2013

    I will however happily sign this petition:

    Which I think gets at the real heart of the issue.

    Link to this
  10. 10. DNLee 3:35 pm 05/3/2013

    I disagree with Disallowing her opportunity to call what she did science or experimentation. It was stupid and unsafe, but genuinely science curiosity and the desire to make something go boom and impress friends are not mutually exclusive.

    It wasn’t safe, but that means she doesn’t get to call it science? I’m not letting that play. And because you don’t see what she was doing as a big thing doesn’t mean that I (& many others) don’t see it that way and rally behind her inquisitiveness.
    Maybe, Kiera didnt go to her science teacher to ask about the Drano experiment becaus she did really trust him/her in a way to get answers. When kids have non-judgmental adults then they come/go to them with risky ideas and questions. This was a crazy big risky thing to do and she didn’t consult a single adult. We – the education, legal, social fabric system failed her. Ad we are failing so many other kids, too.
    But the thing *for me* is that kids like Kiera are ones I feel especially connected to. She looks like someone I know, love, have taught. Perhaps you may not know the real threat of losing a promising bright mind to the penal system. I do. Or you may not have seen the light dim from a teen’s eyes who realizes that he or she ‘gets it’ and that they are not dumb – like everybody says, only to have their enthusiasm dashed and voices muted because they got sent to the Principal’s office for not sitting down.

    Like I said in my post and let me make it clear again, this situation calls attention to the need for Mentored Science exploration for youth and since I routinely focus conversations on diversity and science, say we need these opportunies for minority youth especially. Why? Because of the STEM access and performance gap in this nation, because of the likelihood of authorities to assume something sinister is at play if it’s a Black Kid doing unsupervised science – in fact some are acting as if her assert action that she was doing an experiment was false, and quite frankly I am tired of going to professional science events and being able to count the number of Black, Latino, and Native American scientists on one hand.

    There are many issues at hand here:
    1) over reaction of the authorities
    2) discipline gap
    3) Criminalization and school to prison pipeline
    4) How adults/system squash scientific interests of kids, ESPECIALLY children of color

    And none of these are mutually exclusive or more important than the other.
    I react quite strongly and firmly when anyone suggests that it should be ordered. That is equivalent to telling me (anyone) that my reality is wrong or my feelings aren’t correct because *you* don’t see/experience the world that way.
    What gives anyone the authority to decide what is valid feeling for me, especially when I (or others) occupy a different positionality or intersectionality of life?
    So I’m addressing all of those issues, all of them. They are related to me, in this case and I’m hoping to see the needle move in better directions for each/all.

    Link to this
  11. 11. fskilroy 5:11 pm 05/3/2013

    Madness, I can’t help but think if I were a teen today I’d be in jail.

    Link to this
  12. 12. maryyap 8:32 pm 05/3/2013

    There’s a verified fundraiser for Kiera here! We’re trying to help her with her legal bills as she fights these unfair charges. Spread the word, every dollar and mention helps:

    Verified by here:

    Link to this
  13. 13. MandoZink 9:31 pm 05/3/2013

    I would have gotten into a lot more trouble as a kid if my parents had any idea how many things I experimented with. Sure, I wanted to see things go boom, but I was also interested in what makes it happen. Kiera didn’t make the effort to get the ingredients correct because she was a troublemaker. She was curious about the process. When you get results, you begin to focus and realize you are capable of more.

    My little sister, who was just like me, is now a chemical engineer, Site Assessment Manager for EPA cleanup sites and an Embassy Science Fellow at a U.S. Embassy. I myself have an engineering degree and a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge across many fields, particle physics in particular. I STILL goof off with whatever I have the time to mess with.

    Kiera needs encouragement and some techno-nutty friends right now. Being daring and inquisitively driven is not dangerous to society.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Moulton 7:15 am 05/4/2013

    I have issued a Call for Response from the attendees at ISTE 2013. ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education.

    “Call for Response from STEM Educators: Sixteen-year old honor student, Kiera Wilmot, expelled, arrested and charged with a felony over a commonplace science project.”

    Members of ISTE and the Education Community in general are welcome to participate in the ISTE Community Forum (powered by Ning). Anyone can read the forum (without registering) and elect to register (at no cost) on the Forum if they wish to participate in Forum discussions.

    Please join us in devising Ethical Best Practices for responding to this travesty and transforming it into a constructive “teachable moment” for all parties.

    Link to this
  15. 15. tedra o 10:13 pm 05/4/2013

    “I know many of you want to do more. I completely understand. And we should. The only thing is it’s not clear to me how to contact the family and let them know that we are available to them. Making sure Kiera is safe is first. Clearing her of these charges is the priority. Offers to mentor, teach, do outreach or even start a college fund are secondary to securing her permanent freedom as soon as possible.”

    I humbly suggest that people consider offering to mentor, teach, do outreach, or even start college funds for kids *locally*, wherever they are. Kiera Wilmot’s case has gotten a lot of press, and she certainly deserves support and to have the charges against her reduced if not dismissed entirely–but there are thousands of kids like her who *haven’t* gotten national press coverage, and who are surely as deserving of a helping hand.

    Link to this
  16. 16. knockoutx 11:03 am 05/5/2013

    This is a link for a fundraiser to help Keira with her legal bills!

    Link to this
  17. 17. Shane F 5:37 pm 05/5/2013

    There must be consequences for actions. There must be personal responsibility. You can’t seriously expect anyone to believe than Keira didn’t know what she was doing. Even if the device she was making was only going to produce smoke, as she stated, that would STILL be against school policy.

    I can’t help but wonder if all this defense is because of her race. Would you be so vigorous in your defense of a student of Middle Eastern descent charged with the same crime? A White or Latin student? Seeing that you call yourself “The Urban Scientist,” and that you describe your column as, “A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences”…I very seriously doubt it. As such, I can not take your selective defense of this student very seriously. Especially considering there are dozens, if not hundreds of similar cases on the books, where the suspect is not African-American. Where is your vehement insistence of THEIR being over-charged, and your contention that the authorities are over-reacting? Correct me if I am wrong, but are you currently supporting any other student defense funds? Asking people to go sign a petition to have charges dropped? Writing articles belittling the charges and berating the authorities in their cases? People are people, and ALL deserve equal treatment and defense, regardless if they have the same skin color as you do.

    You can say, “20 years ago, folks would have wagged a finger, (and said) “You crazy kids!”…but IT ISN’T 20 YEARS AGO. Times have changed. We know that. The kids know that. They know the rules. “Scientific Curiosity” is no reason to look the other way, and laugh off an experiment with an explosive device, especially in light of societal events, and ESPECIALLY an experiment like this performed on SCHOOL PROPERTY…Have you been living under a rock?

    Instead of trying to get one student relieved of paying the consequences of her actions (regardless of whether or not you are assisting because of her race), I would contend that your efforts would be better served and of more assistance to the children/adults that read your articles, if they were directed at supporting scientific curiosity, while espousing the importance of following the laws/rules/regulations of society, and that there are ramifications for failing to do so.

    Personally, I find it reprehensible that you are singling out this student to be exonerated of her crime, if you are not going to put in an equal effort to get other kids exonerated, because surely they were just being “scientifically curious” as well, right? What makes those kids any different than Kiera, and undeserving of your protest?

    We all know the answer, just come out and say it.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Natasha2283 9:05 pm 05/5/2013

    Shane F, what I find “reprehensible” is your arrogance.

    I admit, I didn’t read your entire post. About the time that you decided “Urban Scientist” using “hip hop” meant the author would not support the defense of non-African American students (and then based your entire bloated, gaseous argument on that unproven assumption),I lost interest in anything you had to say. Your attempts to dictate who and what we support, and how we support it, are not worth the electrons that were inconvenienced to get you here.

    Link to this
  19. 19. DNLee 9:40 pm 05/5/2013

    I completely co-sign tedra. And thank you knockoutx!

    Link to this
  20. 20. DNLee 6:05 am 05/6/2013

    Ok, I obviously need a disclaimer for my emotional state as,of late. And to explain to Shane F *why this case, this girl attract my attentions and energy so vehemently* Hopefully this will contextualize all of reactions. “I do it (science) for the hood. I am here for the Shaniquas & Jamal’s of the world. I blog for Pookie, Ray Ray and Mama ‘nem. I am absolutely aware of the typical demographics of the average Scientific American subscribers. But I make not apologies for who I am, whose I am and where I come from and go to daily.
    I don’t owe you, Shane, anything when it comes to shaping my voice, my message or my mission – and I am still talking about science outreach. Check your privilege.

    I am here for all kids, but especially those I see myself in. That doesn’t mean exclusively race or sex/gender or socioeconomic status either — but those markers are obvious. I get crazy Mama bear defensive over my bad ass ‘Fair Eastside’ Babies. I see them catching hell left & right. Sometimes the authorities coming down on them is appropriate and sometimes it isn’t. Either way, I am STILL here for them. All children deserve an advocate and someone to leverage resources for them, especially if they come from disenfranchised groups were positive outcomes are NOT expected of them. I see people who are too quick to throw young people away and for a variety of reasons (historical, political and many unconscious) individuals from certain groups have to fight harder to prove our humanity and our right to be heard and given the benefit of the doubt. I know how that feels so I have a very strong sense of empathy when I see others catching hell.

    So yes, I am very emotional about Kiera Wilmot, and her being a black girl tinkering in science pushes my neena-meter over the edge. But that’s obviously not all of it. HUndreds, nay tens of thousands of other people also see the injustice in this and have spoken up. Charging her with a felony just isn’t right and a system that makes such a system so easy to do this to a kid like her doesn’t sit well with many people.

    Link to this
  21. 21. gwmckenzie 9:50 am 05/6/2013

    So, out of curiousity, if you add ball bearings and call it “a study of explosive particle distribution in an urban environment” does it still qualify as a “science experiment”?

    I see no sign that anyone who has posted here is actually in a position to comment as to Keira’s state of mind when she conducted this “experiment”. Was she, indeed, simply curious, or was she angry over something that happened at the school recently? Was she bullied , snubbed, or “left out”? I don’t know, and I see know sign that anyone participating in this didcussion has that level of personal knowledge of the circumstances.

    There are 14 year olds with the maturity of 20-somethings and there are 19 year old individuals whom I wouldn’t trust with a can opener. We need to know if Keira is an angry girl looking for revenge on her classmates or, as some have alleged, a curious adolescent who simply got carried away with her enthusiasm. Without knowing which Keira might be, I really can’t comment on whether charges and prosecution are justified – note that the two are seperate issues – many charges get dropped long before they reach the prosecution phase.

    A proper resolution of the issue requires a full and complete investigation of the circumstances, something I hope the authorities in this case are pursuing. Neither “solution” of ruining a teen’s future over an incident in which noone was injured, or labelling the event a “science experiment” and sweeping it under the carpet serves the greater good.

    Link to this
  22. 22. DNLee 10:00 am 05/6/2013

    <_< at gwenmckenzie: The fact that you are 'going there' to assume that this girl may have been angry and out for revenge says something — about how messed up life has become. And your state of mind. I can't begin to touch that one.

    Link to this
  23. 23. MandoZink 3:57 pm 05/6/2013

    Dude, you seem to be having a really bad racist reaction here! I followed this story on a number of science-oriented websites and it has evoked nothing but fond memories of “not-well-thought-out-yet” experiments other people had in their youth; experiences which piqued their interest in science and drove them to the hobbies and careers they now have. This community reaction to the suppression of her curiosity obviously does not reflect any experience you ever had, and you can only respond with racist drivel. Why are you even commenting on a science site?

    What the hell are you trying to imply here? You lack the comprehension to understand the interest that others see may be awakening in this young woman’s mind. There is a definite parallel to our own curiosity in science that we see happening here. Kiera may not have thought the whole event out very well, as many of us also failed to do when young, but we survived to be more careful and got better at it. The ball-bearings comment was just stupid. Only a complete idiot, possibly one such as yourself, would think to add shrapnel to cause intentional harm.

    I am sure your reaction may have been shaped a bit by personal experiences, but rest assured – the general response from all of us curious “hands on” types is one of astonishment and sympathy for the harsh intellectual oppression/suppression Kiera is dealing with.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Rozumbrada 4:14 am 05/7/2013

    To gwmckenzie:

    Why not actually pay attention to the EVIDENCE?

    The arrest report indicates NO intent to harm , to annoy, to startle, NOTHING of that kind.

    Kiera did the experiment at a remote location by the Gazebo, used a small 8 oz. plastic bottle. That bottle was found, evidently not ripped to pieces the way those YouTube 2L bottles get blown apart.

    There is NO evidence in the arrest report that anyone was actually endangered, only that there was potential endangerment due to lack of adult supervision.

    It makes NO sense for her to do this at a remote locale, using very small bottle, if she had a malicious intent. She obviously acted irresponsibly, perhaps due to bad advice, perhaps she was in hurry and under pressure.

    I did my science fair experiment the evening before, totally unauthorized and at the last moment, and wrote it up overnight, and still got a 2nd place. I was both stupid and smart, as many teens are.

    It amazes how so many posters PRESUME Kiera GUILTY and in effect demand proof of innocence, something often impossible to produce, especially regarding INTENT.

    It could be that your posts are motivated by racism; should hold that possibility against you until you prove otherwise? What you do to Kiera is essentially that kind of absurdity.

    And just in case: the charges against Kiera do NOT require any malicious intent of any kind, and do NOT require any kind of endangerment of people or property. This so-called strict liability is common in many Florida statutes. So no, the charges themselves do not provide ANY evidence of ANY malicious intent.

    Link to this
  25. 25. CraigThomas 2:09 am 05/9/2013

    Maybe Shane F. can have a think about how his state of mind would be had this been *his* kid?

    Whenever I take my children to a science museum, there are demonstrations including all sorts of different things burning, popping, or exploding. It is perfectly natural for an intelligent child to be inspired to try some of this for themselves. And school, as the place where they congregate with their peers for the purpose of sharing knowledge is the obvious place to take a bottle of drano, some aluminium foil, and an empty bottle for the purpose of making a very mild experiment in container overpressure and containment failure.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Moulton 5:15 pm 05/9/2013

    What would be the prospect of finding a scholarship fund to send Kiera and her twin sister to a quality school where they could get a good education in math and science without being subjected to the unwholesome machinations of a toxic and dispiriting bureaucracy?

    Link to this
  27. 27. QuipsTravails 10:51 am 05/14/2013

    FYI, Homer Hickam (of Rocket Boys/October Sky) has offered Kiera a scholarship to Space Academy and is fundraising so her twin can go as well:

    Link to this
  28. 28. bucketofsquid 5:29 pm 05/29/2013

    OK, let us put it in perspective. I’m white. I’m blond. I have blue eyes. As a teenager I had tons of evil intent. I set plenty of things on fire but never a building or vehicle. I did once, with a group of friends, set an abandoned field on fire and then had to put the fire out before someone called it in. It only burned about a 1/4th of an acre.

    I also owned and practiced regularly with a shotgun and a rifle. After some trial and error I figured out how to make a quasi-napalm and also a crude mustard gas. Never the less, I never actually hurt anyone. Did I do any of this at school? Of course not.

    The only thing this girl did wrong was to make it go boom at school. It doesn’t matter if she wanted to create a disturbance or not. The end result was a disturbance. Give her a week of detention and forget about it.

    There have been study after study showing that people like me get charged less often and if convicted get lighter sentences than people of a less pale coloring. Interestingly it is shown clearly that us pale faces are much more prone to acts of terrorism in the USA. For the last 200 years there have been thousands of acts of terrorism and almost but not quite all were conducted by white males. The remainder were primarily white females. Only in the last 2 decades have minorities made up a noticeable percentage. Tobacco companies kill 400,000 a year in the USA and no one seems to care about that mass murder.

    She made a small bottle go boom. I made chemical weapons/weapons of mass destruction. I spent more than 20 years as a Boy Scout leader and am an upstanding member of my church as well as a valued city employee. If you don’t see what is wrong with this picture then you must be blind!

    Link to this

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