In Silicon Valley these days, the only thing more valuable than Bitcoins is
an H1-B visa -- the document that allows skilled, non-immigrant foreigners
to work in specialized industries, particularly in high-tech. The lack of
qualified homegrown talent has caused plenty of hand-wringing in Washington
over the need to attract our best and brightest students to the so-called
STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
But if nurturing future scientists and mathematicians is so crucial to our
nation's future, someone forgot to tell the folks down in Bartow,
Last month, Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old student at Bartow High School, set
up an experiment to see what would happen if she mixed hydrochloric acid
with aluminum. She arrived at school early one morning and, in a plastic
water bottle, mixed together a sample of The Works toilet bowl cleaner with
some aluminum foil. Then she stepped back and watched. The reaction produced
a hydrogen gas that, when it mixed with oxygen, exploded. The detonation
would have been about as powerful -- and as loud -- as a medium-size
firecracker. In other words, it was somewhat dangerous but not exactly a
Kiera conducted her experiment in an isolated part of the school's campus.
When an assistant principal, drawn by the bang, rushed over, Kiera explained
she was working on a project for a science fair. Then the police
arrived, and Kiera was handcuffed, read her Miranda rights and charged
with discharging a weapon on school grounds and setting off a destructive
device. She also was expelled from school.
Is this any way to treat an aspiring young scientist?
Certainly, Kiera deserves to be disciplined (perhaps detention cleaning the
chemistry lab?), but the teenager is hardly Ted Kaczynski.
The most distressing aspect of the story isn't the crime or the charges, but
what it says about the misguided way our nation approaches scientific
Science is fueled by the imagination. Teaching science should be about
breaking down the magical processes in the world around us and allowing
students to comprehend them by testing and proving theories. Unfortunately,
we more often tend to squelch the wonder by forcing students to memorize the
periodic table and testing them on the atomic weight of boron (important
note: great teachers don't do this). This way of teaching is failing our
Consider the character Jesse Pinkman from the television series "Breaking
Bad." As a student, Jesse flunked Walter White's chemistry class. Later,
when he joined up with his former teacher to begin cooking methamphetamine,
Jesse began to understand the processes and excel as a working chemist,
becoming almost as accomplished as White himself. I'm not advising aspiring
scientists to get into the production of illegal drugs, but the point stands
that gaining understanding through experimentation is invaluable.
Our failure to encourage scientific inquiry is having dire consequences:
Since 1995, according to
the National Center for Education Statistics, American students have
consistently regressed on their science achievement test scores between the
fourth and the eighth grades.
Last year, Slate interviewed
five science teachers from countries that outperformed the U.S. The
consistent themes in their answers were relativity -- showing students the
science in their own lives -- and creativity, encouraging experimentation
and allowing students to be inquisitive.
Clearly, our science teachers need to spend less time teaching the rules and
more time developing imaginative ways to prove them.
So, let's have more science experiments in our classes, take more things
apart, blow stuff up, allow students to experiment and explore their own
curiosities and then rein them back in with a lesson. Budding scientists
need support, not jail time.
(Alex Bruns is on the staff of Bloomberg View. Follow
him on Twitter.)