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Why The Kiera Wilmot Situation Is Bad For America

by Phillip Rhodes

Posted on Friday May 03, 2013 at 02:12PM in Technology

In case you missed the recent news, a 16 year old Florida high-school student named Kiera Wilmot was expelled from school and charged with felony counts of "possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds" and "discharging a destructive device" for conducting a harmless science experiment which resulted in a small explosion... which injured no one and caused no harm.

Predictably, the story has sparked a firestorm of controversy. Add in that fact that the student in question is female and black, and the story has quickly morphed into one focusing on the possible racist and/or sexist influences involved. And yes, there likely are overtones of both sexism and racism influencing the public officials involved in this story. But I think focusing on that is missing a much larger issue, and one that represents bad news for all hackers, makers, DIY'ers, amateur scientists... and for America as a whole. There are serious economic consequences to the kind of narrow-minded, overly risk-averse, brain-dead thinking which leads to a story like this.

Simply put, our society seems to be moving towards an overly protective, overly risk-averse, parochial mindset, where we are all encouraged to accept blind conformity to "authority" in the name of "safety". Students are arrested for harmless experiments, at a time when business leaders around the country are screaming for improvements in STEM education, at a time when our country is facing a continuing severe economic crisis, and a time when we may or may not be balanced on the precipice of a "manufacturing renaissance" which could bring jobs to the unemployed, and bolster the economy across the board. But what message are we sending to innovators, especially young ones, when incidents like this happen? And what about the damage done by people granted "authority" over others, as so well demonstrated in the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiments?

I contend that this Kiera Wilmot story, and similar stories, will have (or have had) a "chilling effect" on all the hackers, makers, DIY'ers, amateur scientists and hobbyists around the country, who are working to educate themselves, create new things, and provide the basis for a future generation of technologically savvy, well-educated, innovative citizenry which our nation needs. And this is at the worst possible time... the DIY movement, or "maker movement", whatever you want to call it, has been flourishing for a few years now. Hackerspaces are popping up all over, individuals are buying (or better yet, building) their own 3D printers, CNC milling machines, robots of various sorts, and are learning and creating and making at blinding pace. Heck, even Radio Shack have re-embraced the DIY crowd - which they had abandoned decades ago - and now sell Arduino microcontrollers and an expanded selection of discrete components and electronic kits.

So, just at the time when young people may be starting, ever so slowly, to embrace technological exploration, science, electronics, robotics, etc., we throw a cold glass of water in their faces, by demonstrating that "doing science on your own will mean going to jail for the smallest mistake". And what does it say to the people holed up at their local hackerspace, working on DIY fusion research, or high-voltage electronics experimenting, or anything else with even a slight "danger factor"? Are people going to be less likely to experiment and participate in shaping the future, when the threat of going to jail for a harmless mistake is lingering in the air?

Sadly, this is not a new story. People have been lamenting, for example, the restrictions on components found in chemistry sets for years... But it's a big jump from restricting access to components needed to run an experiment, to putting someone in jail for simply running an experiment in which no one was harmed and nothing was damaged. Let me re-iterate that last bit... despite the "explosion" no one was harmed and no property was damaged. And yet, this young lady is still being charged with felonies and will be tried as an adult. A spokesperson for the school district said:

We urge our parents to convey to their kids that there are consequences to their actions,

This is wrong... there are (or should be) consequences for the outcomes of actions. An action which causes no harm or injury, should *not* have any punishment associated with it. Otherwise we will have to ask "what are the consequences of brain-dead educational policies that dampen curiosity, discourage learning and experimentation and turn kids away from science"? Personally, I don't think we want to experience those consequences.

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