How to repel kids from science: By shackling curiosity in cuffs

June 7, 2013 at 1:28 am 2 comments

One year, I gave an assignment in my Objects and Design class (in Squeak!) to construct a personal newspaper by reading bits of news (based on user interest) from local news sites.  The night before the assignment was due, so many students tested their buggy fetch-and-scrape code on one poor site that they killed the site — a pedagogical denial-of-service attack.

Should I or my students have been arrested and taken away in handcuffs?  It seems like the direct computing world analogy from the story quoted below.

Fortunately, the student has now been cleared of charges. It’s still a scary story.

It’s a sad commentary on our alarmist society that a similar deed would probably land a modern day budding Oliver Sacks in jail. That is exactly what it has done to a young aspiring scientist named Kiera Wilmot from Bartow High School in Florida, and in the process it has almost certainly deprived this country of exactly the kind of scientist whose shortage its politicians and educators are so fond of lamenting. The student conducted a common experiment mixing Drano and aluminum foil on the grounds of a school. The exact details are unknown but the incident led to a minor explosion, hurt nobody and damaged no property. This relatively harmless bit of curiosity led to Ms. Wilmot being handcuffed, arrested and expelled from the school. Irrational State Overreach: 1, The Much Touted American Edge in Science: 0. Whatever else the school was trying to achieve, it definitely succeeded in squelching independent scientific curiosity in its students.

via How to repel kids from science: By shackling curiosity in cuffs | The Curious Wavefunction, Scientific American Blog Network.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul Buis  |  June 7, 2013 at 9:04 am

    The criminality of the behavior hinges on “intent” which is not always obvious enough for the police to determine. This kind of thing happens all the time in non-science related things too. I worked with Boy Scouts and had one of my Eagle Scouts arrested for attempting to break up a fight between two other students. When the behavior was first observed by the security guard, the guard couldn’t really tell what role the Eagle Scout was playing in the violence that was occurring. The guard did what he was trained to do, arrest the whole lot of them and let the prosecutor sort it all out.

    Criminal intent does occur in CS. I have problems with students who discover a security weakness, for example, and then rather than simply reporting the weakness, poke at it to see what they can get out of it. The poking demonstrates “intent” to exploit the weakness.

  • 2. Mike Lutz  |  June 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    The security issue is a tricky one, as some of my colleagues have found out.

    Suppose student A suspects there is a security hole in a software system – unless the hole is as wide as a truck and blatently obvious, it typically requires some sort of experiment to confirm or refute the hypothesis. Curiosity at 2:00AM triumphs over discretion and the student performs such an experiment in a way that does not compromise the system but simply show compromise is possible.

    The next day A tells his professor and they approach the custodian of the system; rather than praise A for both his insight and restraint, the student is hung out to dry. The conclusion one draws from this is that the custodian(s) are less invested in finding and correcting flaws than they are in their protecting their naive beliefs that the systems are secure.

    This is distinct, of course, from the case where a student discovers a hole and then uses it to his or her advantage.


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