Monday, May 6, 2013

Zero Tolerance for Science (or Common Sense)

Do an experiment, get arrested. This is what happened to 16-year old Kiera Wilmot, an African American high school student in Florida. Wilmot was arrested on federal charges for possessing a “weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device,” after mixing household chemicals in a water bottle, which ejected the lid and a small amount of smoke. Nobody was hurt and no property (other than her bottle) was damaged. Her former principal, Ron Prichard, said she had “never been in trouble before,” and called her a “good kid,” according to Alternet.

It does not appear that her experiment had been assigned or that her teacher was even aware that she was conducting such an experiment, which does draw into question whether or not it was a safe or “appropriate” school activity. However, she insists it was just an experiment and a mistake and her principal agreed. Call it a harmless lapse of judgment and naiveté by a curious and otherwise good student.

Prior to the advent of zero tolerance policies, such an infraction would have resulted in a trip to the office, a warning not to do it again and maybe a 1-2 day suspension (at least for a white, middle class student). Expulsion seems a particularly excessive punishment considering she had no prior history of misbehavior at school, no malice intended and nobody was hurt. However, she is black, and black students (who make up only 17% of the nation's student population) account for 34% of suspensions.  

While the school district's punishment was excessive, the state’s response was completely over the top. Not only was she slapped with federal weapons charges, but the district attorney is charging her as an adult—something usually reserved for repeat violent offenders and that has led many to question whether its response was influenced by her skin color.  After all, the DA could have charged her as a juvenile or not charged her at all, as she recently did with a white teen who accidentally killed his brother with a BB gun. DA Tammy Glotfelty said the BB gun death could “only be seen as a tragic accident.” Of course it was tragic (a 10 year-old boy was killed) and it was an accident (BB guns are rarely lethal), so dropping the charges is the just, rational and compassionate thing to do. The only obvious differences between the two cases is that the science experiment was not tragic (no one was hurt or killed) and the perpetrator was three years older, black and female. 

There is another disturbing aspect to this case: the message being sent to children is that curiosity, experimentation, independent exploration, indeed science itself, are not to be tolerated in school, where everything must be strictly controlled and regimented by the teachers on behalf of the state. In the past, science curricula routinely included field trips to collect specimens, observations of natural phenomena outside of the classroom, independent research projects and experiments, often with students developing their own testable research questions, designing their own experiments and not knowing ahead of time what the correct results are supposed to be (in short, they were doing real science).

Today science has become so focused on content standards and high stakes multiple choice exams, that there is little time left in the school year for student-directed exploration, independent projects, and actual science. While a few good science teachers have figured out ways to either ignore the tests and standards or to deemphasize them in the name of teaching real science to their students, the majority of science teachers engage in a mad rush to cram in all of the standards (and there are way too many) by the April test dates. Furthermore, in service of the biotechnology and medical industries, the life science standards have been reworked over the past few decades to focus almost entirely on the molecular, completely leaving out natural history, marine biology, and many of the other fun and engaging topics that thrilled teenagers in the 1950s-1970s.

Consequently, science for many of today's students has become a serious of formulas and vocabulary words, rather than a process for exploring and analyzing phenomena and seeking rational explanations for intriguing questions.

There is a Petition to get the charges dropped against her.

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