By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor and Frequent Contributor
All right, they aren’t the only ones who might have made this error, but they are in the spotlight since they freaked out over a homemade electronic clock. Yes, that’s the one Ahmed Mohamed brought to school. Somehow one or more teachers and some police thought it looked like a bomb.
Now, what’s the most essential part of any bomb? Is it a clock? Nope. How about a circuit board? Not that either. What about a bunch of colored wires? Those are traditional fodder in TV shows. Not a chance. You can make a bomb with just a fuse, a blasting cap, and some dynamite, plastic explosive, or some mixture of oil and fertilizer.
The essential ingredient here is, you guessed it, explosives.
Without something explosive, no bomb. A circuit board hardly qualifies no matter how much electronics are on it. It only takes a moment to look and see the lack of explosives inside of the satchel that Ahmed carried his clock in, I assume to protect it.
What’s really going on here? I see two important issues. The first is the racial profiling that is obvious despite protests from school and law enforcement. The extreme reaction, including handcuffs, would not have happened to a blond kid. His satchel may have been inspected. He may have been questioned. But, it all would have been handled with much more restraint.
Then, there’s the damper that these incidents place on student creativity. Sure, we don’t like students experimenting with anything truly dangerous, especially in schools. This is a case where there was absolutely no danger — no chemicals, no high voltages, nothing explosive, nothing even sharp. The clock was completely benign.
Within reasonable guidelines, students should be encouraged to explore and be creative. Having two grandchildren in elementary school right now, I am very concerned about the future of education. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, sort of a science Common Core) tell us to add more inquiry to our curricula. This reaction is exactly opposite to that spirit.
Our teachers and school administrators are acting as though they fear their own shadows. In this atmosphere, how can creative talent develop, let alone thrive? Must enlightened parents have ongoing battles with schools merely to ensure that their children have the opportunity to realize their potentials?
Now, imagine if Ahmed were taking an online course in engineering instead of the one in his physical high school. He might video his clock functioning and show its various parts through Instagram or YouTube. He could share his step-by-step construction experience, including mistakes, though Twitter and Facebook. The class could gather on Skype to share in real time. There would be no ignorant administrator or teacher to call the cops and no clueless police to terrorize this young student.
I have always believed that physical schools play an important role in helping our children to develop. Now, I’m not so certain.