5 Ways to Stop a Black Scientist: Kiera Wilmot's Arrest

05/14/2013 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

When I was 16, I poured different amounts of baking soda into a couple of half-open ketchup containers to see what would happen. The resulting reactions were fascinating. The baking soda reacted with the vinegar in the ketchup to produce carbon dioxide. The pressure built up inside the containers, then spewed out like a crazy ketchup mix once the bottles were opened. After my experiment, I had to clean the tables, apologize for creating a mess, and then was commended for my curiosity. I felt like a scientist. I credit that experiment with playing a significant role in my declaring a science major and completing my undergraduate degree in physical anthropology, biology, and chemistry.

In the United States, one of the greatest challenges in the field of education is related to generating youth interest and participation in science. These challenges are reflected in the endless reports about achievement gaps in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines, lower numbers of students taking advanced science classes, and the general science illiteracy of the population. The low numbers of aspiring scientists are exacerbated when it comes to youth of color, and even more grim when it comes to African Americans specifically. News stories indicate that the percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade and according to recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans received only 7 percent of all STEM bachelor's degrees, 4 percent of master's degrees, and 2 percent of doctoral degrees.

The National Science foundation recently released data indicating that women, persons with disabilities, and three racial/ethnic groups -- African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians -- constitute smaller percentages of science and engineering degree recipients (as well as employed scientists and engineers) than they do of the population. The fact is that the science and engineering workforce is largely white and male, and minority women, especially African American women, comprise about 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

This statistics show the importance of encouraging all kids, but especially youth of color, to pursue careers in the sciences. They should be allowed to ask questions, to experiment, and to engage in the inquiry process that guides much of the progressive thinking in science, and is reflected in the newly developed Next Generation Science Standards.

Now meet Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old who was recently arrested in Florida for conducting a science experiment that produced smoke and a loud pop from a lid of a container. Kiera, described as "a good kid" by her school principal, and "known among staff for her exemplary record at Bartow High School," mixed a few home materials to create a chemical reaction and was then carted off school grounds on adult felony charges on the grounds of possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds. With her arrest, an amazing opportunity to teach her more about chemistry, help her deconstruct what she did wrong (scientifically or otherwise), and foster her curiosity were lost. Instead, she was criminalized. Do you think Keira will be encouraged to declare a major in the sciences?

This case runs counter to everything that good educators would or should do with an inquisitive student, and highlights many issues with science education (or education more broadly) for students of color. In the points below I highlight the issues brought up by this case, and why the structures in place in Kiera's school district (and many others across the country) run counter to our nation's goal of producing more scientists.

1) Criminalize Curiosity

Kiera is black, curious, has "an exemplary record," and no record for poor behavior. This forces me to ask, which of these characteristics is the one that deemed her a criminal by the school district? The easiest response is that either her blackness or her curiosity are the real crime, since other students may also be "good friendly kids." In essence, the school district is criminalizing curiosity and demonizing black exceptionalism. Each of these is a crime against education and other students who like Kiera, are black, curious, intelligent, and now leery to engage in science. Punishing Keira's curiosity is a crime against science, a discipline that not only cherishes curiosity, but requires it.

2) Sending Students to "Expulsion" Schools

Part of Kiera's punishment in this case is that she will have to "complete her education in an expulsion program." Across the country, these types of programs are overpopulated by youth of color, and do very little to address the reasons why young people are there in the first place. Sending students away is a common sentence for many students who are kicked out of schools for minor infractions. They are criminalized and then given a substandard education in a restrictive environment which replicates the draconian laws that pushed them out in the first place. Curious students are placed in schools that do not foster creativity. Brilliant students are not intellectually engaged, and a generation of curious and brilliant students is being pushed off the ledge.

3) Stifling Innovation

In many classrooms, particularly in science classrooms, both teachers and students are given scripts to follow and cookbook-style science experiments that provide no space for creativity. For students who are curious about science, and are told exactly what to do and how to do it throughout every second in the science lab. Unfortunately, these lowly scientific explorations result in situations like Kiera's. What educators should have been done in Kiera's case is bring the experiment she conducted into a classroom and discuss the process behind it. Sadly, these types of teachable moments are off the curriculum script, yet are also the moments that birth scientists. Avoiding them makes school and science boring and punishing students for them alienates them from science altogether.

4) Putting Outdated Rules Over Education

Science Education 101 involves ensuring that the teacher and students conduct research on the dangers of their experiment, and the possibilities of what could go wrong. Usually, the chief rule is make sure no one can possibly be hurt (including yourself) and no property is damaged. In Kiera's case, the small amount of drain cleaner and aluminum foil that was part of her experiment showed that she adhered to, or at least was concerned about the safety of others (although I wish she would have had on goggles). Any overly strict and ridiculously draconian set of laws that trump science will not produce scientists.

5) Prison-type Policies

Beyond allowing school rules to trump science, perhaps the most troubling thing about this case is the absence of agency for school officials in the enforcing of the rules. When there is no school official with enough imagination to recognize that Kiera's case was far from the type that the district rule was designed against, and no one has enough passion for the interest of the student to ensure that she was not carted off school grounds in handcuffs, there is something terribly wrong. Whenever school officials (whether they be school teachers or administrators) are so powerless against the enforcement of rules that they did not design, they are no more than wardens reigning over inmates. In these types of scenarios, the school-to-prison pipeline is expanded, and a scientific mind cannot thrive.