How Not to Nurture Young Scientists

Curiosity about science should be encouraged, not punished.

How Not to Nurture Young Scientists

"One of the coolest things about chemistry has to be blowing things up. It gives you the satisfaction of knowing your experiment worked (or sometimes failed), plus it's just a lot of fun to watch something blow up." - Chemistry Twig

On the morning of April 29, 16-year-old Barton high school student Kiera Wilmot went to school and did a science experiment. It wasn't even an assignment; "she just wanted to see what would happen when the chemicals mixed," says her principal. The chemicals were hydrochloric acid and aluminum. What happens when those chemicals are mixed is a small explosion, because (with some omissions) 6HCl(aq) + 2Al(s) -> 2AlCl3(aq) + 3H2(g). The explosion caused zero damage to any person or property.

"Aww, it's great to read about a student taking initiative in her education and acting on curiosity about science," you might think. Encouraging wondering and practically finding out about things should be part of science education, because that's what doing science is!

The Polk County School District, however, didn't see it that way at all. Wilmot has been expelled from school and formally arrested on the charges of "possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school...and making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device." These charges are felonies, and Wilmot will be tried as an adult. Argh!

Biologist and science blogger Danielle Lee (@DNLee5) expresses why this is so troubling: "This is a VERY BAD message to kids...A system that values obedience over curiosity isn't education and it definitely isn't science. [Wilmot's] expulsion and arrest send a very clear and striking message to students: Don't try this at home, or school, or anywhere. Science exploration is not for you!"

It's especially outrageous—and ironic—to send that message of exclusion to a kid for blowing something up when science is full of people who blew things up as kids. The Twitter hashtag #solidarity4Wilmot is replete with tweets about accidental explosions, fires, and havoc made in the name of science. Neurology luminary Oliver Sacks writes specifically about this reflecting on his childhood:

"I had a thrilling but precarious sense of being in control—sometimes just. This was especially so with the intensely exothermic reactions of aluminum...Chemical exploration, chemical discovery, was all the more romantic for its dangers."

To be fair, it is important to acknowledge that romantic danger is actually dangerous. According to Meghan Groome, PhD, Executive Director of Education and Public Programs at NYAS, "As scientists, we often applaud younger people doing these types of experiments on their own—tinkering and messing around with dangerous things is almost a rite of passage. But as a teacher or school leader charged with the safe keeping of our pupils, the reponse to this is decidedly mixed. Student experiments are great when done with proper guidance and safety protocols, but when done on one's own the potential for injury skyrockets. It's out job as educators to recognize kids who have an interest in doing science and to create opportunities for them do whiz-bang, exciting experiments under safe conditions, along side experienced scientists and educators."

Of course educators should strive to keep students safe, but arresting and expelling a teenaged girl isn't protecting anyone. As chemist and blogger Ashutosh Jogalekar (@curiouswavefn) points out, "Creating an environment for controlled experimentation involves both setting the parameters for that experimentation and creating mechanisms to bring students who might stray from the status quo back into the fold." 

Upliftingly, if Wilmot wants to continue pursuing her science education, scientists are being a lot more helpful than her school district. Rockefeller University neuroscientist Cori Bargmann and Investigator and Director of Research of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute Jim Woodgett have both tweeted that they will offer Wilmot a summer job at their labs. "Science is about curiosity, initiative, and making mistakes," tweets Bargmann. Yes! It's great to see the scientific community rallying for a young one of our own.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on nyas.org are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.