Curiosity Expelled the Kid?
Rather than punishing students for scientific experimentation, teachers and parents can proactively provide outlets for inquiring minds.
The science world was rocked this spring at the arrest and potential expulsion of 16-year-old Kiera Wilmont for performing an unsupervised chemistry experiment at school. As many scientists elegantly came to her defense, I, as a science teacher, found everyone—Wilmont and the adults in this case—to be stuck between the very unsettling rock and hard place of trying to tell good explosions from bad ones.
As scientists, we often applaud the curiosity of kids like Wilmont and fondly remember our own unsupervised experiments, performed late at night or in secret. The sentimental attachment to our nascent scientific selves is so strong that those of us in the science community often think of tinkering, experimenting, and mischief as necessary rites of passage. I proudly bear the scars of a minor explosion caused by a cocktail of household products concocted during my childhood—though my parents weren't too pleased with the hole in the new carpet.
While scientists often lament that the chemistry set has gone the way of the Dodo, resources such as the Maker movement, the TV show "Mythbusters," and Sean Connolly's The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science still offer essential guidance on how to tinker, experiment, and yes, blow things up. But as educators, our reaction is decidedly mixed because we are legally and morally responsible for the safety and well-being of our students.
Hands-on science projects and self-directed experimentation are the hallmarks of a great science class and, as teachers, we struggle to provide that opportunity to as many kids as possible. As a scientist, I applaud Wilmont's desire to play but as a science teacher, the thought of kids mixing dangerous household chemicals on school grounds is the stuff of nightmares.
While others will write the inevitable Wilmont-related legal lesson about zero-tolerance discipline policies, the lesson I hope to teach is how to spot kids who want to do more science, and then create opportunities for them to let their curiosity run free under the guidance and safety protocols of a teacher or scientist.
In that spirit, here are a few tips on how to spot the budding scientists in your classroom or home. Keep an eye out for these types of kids:
Tinkering is a classic hallmark of science interest and includes taking objects apart, using equipment in novel ways, and suggesting different ways to run an experiment. Teachers can encourage this type of tinkering by creating opportunities and granting permission for kids to explore objects and topics on their own. Some classrooms have reading corners or stations where students can perform different activities and I always love to see locks and hairpins, stethoscopes, and lenses set aside for play.
During experiments or hands-on science activities, listen for students who want to try something different with the tools at hand. For example, if you're using the Sinkers and Floaters lesson, curious students may want to drop different types of objects into the water or perhaps add substances such as soap. They're playing out the start of their own experiments in their minds. Let them, encourage them, and then recruit them into your science club or find the nearest science enrichment program.
Be on the lookout for bored mischief makers. I used to stumble upon students sneaking into the lab or the custodian's closet, perhaps picking locks or even just sticking magnets on everything. Finding this type of low-level mischief led me to identify some of my strongest science students once I recruited them into my science club. But keep a watchful eye out for kids who are experimenting with or harming animals—that can be a sign of problems to come.
Low-level mischief makers create perhaps the greyest area for teachers. In some instances, it's obvious that the kid is tinkering—for example, when a student takes apart a piece of classroom equipment in broad daylight during the school day. In other instances, such as a student mixing chemicals to cause an explosion or a stink bomb, the line between play and malevolence is less clear. It's a judgment call and one best made upon consultation with trusted administrators, the student, and caregivers.
So be careful, kids; teachers, stay on the look-out; and Kiera, when you're ready, you are welcome to join the New York Academy of Sciences.
Meghan Groome, PhD, is the Executive Director of Education & Public Programs at the New York Academy of Sciences. She is a former public school science teacher. Learn more about her current work at www.nyas.org/WhatWeDo/ScienceEd.aspx.