Science Is Education's Arrested Development

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, Florida.

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 doomsday device.

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 education.

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 students.

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.)