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The Urban Scientist

The Urban Scientist

A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences

Florida teen charged with felony for trying science

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News of Kiera Wilmot’s arrest has seriously unnerved me. She is the Florida high school student who was experimenting with common household chemicals in science class that resulted in a minor explosion. There were no injuries and no damage to school property; however, she was taken away in handcuffs, formally arrested and expelled from school.

I acknowledge that too little information has been provided on the case. (UPDATE: Here is the link to the Incident Report filed by the Compliance Officer at her school.) We have NO idea what was happening in the class. Where was the teacher? Were students involved in a laboratory activity at the time? (UPDATE: We now know she was not in class, but was on school grounds before the morning bell rang.) I have spent time in the high school classroom. I know the shenanigans (and havoc) these pre-adults can cause. It is no laughing matter. Even if this were a prank, say something akin to my generation’s idea of setting off smoke bombs in the hall during the passing of classes, my gut reaction stands. (UPDATE: It seems it was NOT aprank. It was a curious kid trying something she saw on the Internet, the toilet cleaner and aluminum project. It still counts as science and as an experiment in my book.)

I don’t like what our public education (and justice) systems do to urban youth (e.g. the discipline gap with Black kids). I worry about urban kids who don't (tend) to have access to social capital that advocates for them and gives them a chance after stupid mistakes. I worry what this will mean to her family financially. What will it mean for her future? Will graduating from an alternative school prevent her from attending college? Will she be marked as a trouble maker? Will she have a criminal record that prevents her from gainful employment and a meaningful life? More immediately, will she get locked away for 20 years? Shit like that happens to kids who look like her.

from Miami New Times

(Yea, I cussed. That’s how livid I am.) I've heard of so many equally stupid and perhaps more dangerous things done by white suburban kids and nothing close to this happens to them.

The School Board had this to say about this situation.

"Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules. We urge our parents to join us in conveying the message that there are consequences to actions. We will not compromise the safety and security of our students and staff."

This is a VERY BAD message to kids, especially urban students of color.

I’m reading between the lines.

A serious breach of conduct – students not sitting still in seats, faces front and being quiet.

Consequences to actions - kicked out of school, criminalized and tried as an adult for not sitting still, being quiet.

Our nation’s science education is already on shaky ground. Everyday kids are being bored to tears in the average science class. And in far too many urban high school science classes, curiosity, hands-on learning, and authentic experimentation rarely exist. The Pedagogy of Poverty that shapes the learning environment of many African-American, Latino and working class white students in our nation values classroom behavior & discipline over curiosity and exploration.

Many school districts have established Rules of Conduct and Zero Tolerance ordinates that penalize students who question a teacher’s authority on a subject (insubordination) or who require alternative learning approaches (behavior issues). Or worst, the concern over possible safety and security issues have resulted in shuttered science laboratories. I’ve witnessed beautifully remodeled lab classrooms with supplies, computers, and equipment – all locked away, never to be touched by most students.>

Why? Some teachers and administrators worry about damage and wear and tear or shenanigans. But the same administrators will brag about their facilities and take visiting dignitaries to tour their fancy facilities? What’s the point?! The kids aren’t getting a chance to experiment and learn. Such a system rewards students with meaningful learning opportunities only if they act right first. Relevant engaging lessons quash most behavior issues, not the other way around!

Already, students like Keira are behind the curve in preparation for 21st Century jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). A system that values obedience over curiosity isn’t education and it definitely isn’t science. Her expulsion and arrest sends a very clear and striking message to students, especially urban students of color: Don’t try this at home, or school or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!

And the message to parents is that if you want your child to not get into any trouble, then tell them to sit still and behave. Most parents of Black and Brown kids already worry enough that their children risk arrest or harm for walking around in hoodies. Now the same antics that happen at the Maker Faire can get your kid handcuffed.

I can’t name a single scientist or engineer, who hadn’t blown up, ripped apart, disassembled something at home or otherwise cause a big ruckus at school all in the name of curiosity, myself included. Science is not a clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps.

I wonder if she was experimenting in class because she wanted to actually do something in science class and not merely be lectured to and complete worksheets. I wonder if she was bored or just wanted to see for herself how x and y react to each other.

Science is fun! I spend months traveling around the world studying wild animals in Africa. I have friends who do chemistry and solve crimes and who live on sea vessels for weeks studying plastic trash islands in the ocean. But the average high school student would have no idea of how exciting science could be because we’ve taken the action out of science.

We need to create 'safe' environments for children of color, especially Black children to study and pursue STEM. If what happened to Kiera is an example, then formal learning environments do not entrust students to explore science. There is a legitimate fear of extreme consequences; and losing another brilliant mind to the justice system is too great a cost to our community. That era s we need to create resourced and mentored places outside of the classroom for science exploration. Cultivating relationships between scientists and engineers and teachers and students is the key to creating this safe environment. By fostering multi-generational relationships a,omg STEM professionals, students, parents, teachers, and adult influencers we stand a chance at addressing both the justice and STEM education disparities in our community.

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

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