I’m not sure where we’re going. “Science” has been celebrated for the last century, we have gone from horses and wagons to the International Space Station. We have landed on multiple planets, and cured diseases that once decimated communities and destroyed lives. “Science” has been suggested as a replacement for religion, with many less than intellectual atheists believing that the two are incompatible.
Science requires an absence of self importance, the need to begin a mission with the idea that you might fail. Perhaps that’s where science started to lose its hold on society, the “me” generation could not be true to the principles of science. Curiosity has certainly taken a beating lately, questioning authority is not seen as a healthy lifestyle choice.
Then something like this happens. Back in April, Kiera Wilmot was a sixteen year old student at Bartow High School in central Florida, less than an hour’s drive from Disney world. Now she attends a school for children who have been expelled from public school. Kiera was expelled for doing her homework. Really. Sarah was assigned the task of completing a chemistry experiment. Her chosen experiment was to see what would happen if Sodium Hydroxide (lye), the caustic agent in drain cleaner, was mixed with aluminum foil. Being sixteen, and a “good student”, she did not know. Rowdy kids like me would have known.
What happens is that the two chemicals react to produce Hydrogen gas (H2). In an enclosed space, expanding gas will eventually burst the container. This is how any explosive works. Kiera had unwittingly built a bomb. I do not take this too lightly. An exploding container of drain cleaner and Hydrogen can ruin anyone’s day. I honestly believe that Kiera truly didn’t know what she had built. She has stated that she knew it would expand, and was intending to create a “volcano” effect. Which in fact is what happened, as she did not seal the container.
Kiera brought her project to school to be approved, but before arriving in class her friends wanted to see what would happen. She set the water bottle on the ground and mixed the chemicals. She says “The lid popped off and smoke started coming out”. This would indicate that the “lid” was either simply snapped in place or not screwed on, otherwise it could not have “popped off”, the bottle would have exploded. The school principal was standing nearby. She did not run away. No property was damaged, and no one was injured.
Despite the Principal’s statement that he didn’t think she was trying to hurt anyone (if she was, maybe she would have taken cover?) and had never been in trouble before (quite emphatically, “She has never been in trouble before. Ever.”) Kiera was handcuffed and arrested for “making, possessing or discharging a destructive device and with possessing or discharging weapons on school grounds.”, both charges being felonies.
Fortunately for Kiera, most experimenters are familiar with blowing things up. The science community was outraged, and as we’ve been saying for years, “don’t piss off a nerd”. The people who actually did invent the internet knew how to spread the word. Kiera’s expulsion has not yet been revoked, but the charges have been dropped. She has been given a scholarship for a program at the United States Space Academy and she is being showered with geek love.
So in the end, science wins the day over ignorance. Largely a happy ending, even though Kiera’s a little hesitant about experiments, has a fair amount of legal expenses, and still can’t attend her High School, although that last one might not easily be seen as negative.
I would like to believe that the idea of teaching science may have been shaken around in a few educators’ minds, so curiosity might be encouraged and even rewarded, but then, I’ve always been a dreamer. And a nerd.