Ahmed Mohamed (Fig. 1) is the kind of 9th-grade student science fairs love. He was active in the robotics club in middle school. He knows how to solder. He even built his own digital clock. He wanted to present it at his school, MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, and had it in his backpack but after the buzzer on the clock went off in the middle of a class he wound up arrested. He was handcuffed and suspended for three days.
The police were called. According to The Dallas Morning News, Ahmed said, "They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’" He said, "I told them no, I was trying to make a clock." Ahmed noted the officer said, "He said, 'It looks like a movie bomb to me.'"
Ahmed repeatedly told everyone who would listen that it was a digital-clock project. It would be rather difficult for it to be a bomb since it was only a circuit board. Police spokesman James McLellan told The Dallas Morning News, “We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb. He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”
At home, his room is filled with circuit boards and projects (Fig. 2). I suspect that my lab here at home has a lot more, so I better not take anything to the schools when I go to talk about science fairs (see “Science Fair Rules”). His engineering teacher told Ahmed not to show the project to other teachers. I help run the annual Mercer Science and Engineering Fair and this particular episode I find appalling.
Twitter is all abuzz about this (see “#IstandWithAhmed” and “@IStandWithAhmed”). Ahmed's Twitter thank you tweet was short and to the point. The online press has jumped on the bandwagon as well that started with The Dallas Morning News' article (see “Hillary Clinton joins social media outcry over Irving teen's arrest for bringing clock to school”).
I agree with many that this should be a question for tonight's GOP debate (see “Why Ahmed Mohamed should be a topic at Wednesday’s GOP debate”). This is a question that should also be asked at every PTA meeting in the next month.
MacArthur High School's home page boasts more than 2,000 mentor volunteers. They also talk about the millions in scholarships awarded to students. That will be hard to do if the best and brightest are locked up and have an arrest record.
Parents in the Irving Independent School District received a letter on Tuesday that talked about how the “Irving Police Department responded to a suspicious looking item on campus” and reminded everyone about “the Student Code of Conduct and specifically not bringing items to school that are prohibited.” Hopefully their science-fair participants, if they have one, do not get arrested as well.
This episode is an extreme case, but it is not unique. Many like to tout their support for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but the support is often a far cry from hands-on education that Ahmed is trying to get.
I am always conflicted when I watch October Sky, a 1999 film about the Rocket Boys. It is a real-life story about a group of boys at a West Virginia school that build rockets and enter and win the local science fair. Homer Hickam was one of those boys, and eventually became a NASA engineer. Even doing something close to what they did then at this point in time would not only get them suspended, but likely locked up for decades.
My daughter and a few others from the Intel Science and Engineering Fair that was held just after 9/11 had to fly to New York with their robotic and electronic projects to be on the Today Show. Of course, they were stopped and their projects were inspected, but luckily security was informed in advance so they made it to New York.
Teaching and managing schools is not an easy job. Neither is being a police officer in this day and age. Still, it should not be this hard to be a good student.