High schooler blows stuff up for science — ends up charged with a felony

A Florida high school student with an interest in science mixed together aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner as an experiment. To her surprise, the mixture exploded. Unfortunately for Kiera Wilmot, she tried her experiment on school grounds.

It was a small explosion, and nobody was hurt. Wilmot was, otherwise, a good student with a perfect behavior record. But the school chose to expel her, have her arrested, and is supporting her being charged with a felony as an adult.

Scientists across the country are not amused. Biologist Danielle Lee writes about this incident in context with the discipline gap that treats minority kids more harshly for small infractions.

Through Twitter, scientists and educators speak up about the things they blew up for science, under the hashtag #KieraWilmot.


    1. Apparently minor explosives now qualify as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” now, so I suppose so.

      1. I shudder to say you’re behind the times. Yesterday a 5-year-old in Kentucky killed his 2-year-old sister with the rifle his parents had given him, and left him alone with, loaded. No charges will be filed against either him….or the irresponsible dickweeds who birthed him and his dead sister.

  1. Jesus fucking christ, some people’s stupidity knows no bounds. 

    I’m talking about the school board and law enforcement of course.

    1. It could be paranoia, to an incredibly stupid degree, or it could be part of a defacto conspiracy by authoritarian scumbags to beat American kids into abject submission to authority.

      Given the transparently absurd crap the TSA’s been getting away with subjecting airline passengers to, I’m not sure which is harder to believe.

      It was already safe to say some years ago that the terrorists have won, but all this spastic thrashing around by shit-scared pissant fuckwits who have no idea what ‘indomitable’ means continues to hand them victory after victory.

      You’d think it should be quite obvious, so perhaps we’re looking at the fallout from these arseholes pushing a hidden agenda…

    1.  the system has become a simple set of “if … then” statements.  No human common sense or judgment involved.  The system in fact has incentivized the escalation through the courts in order to use the data point as justification for continued budgetary growth for the system’s next fiscal year.  The more terrorists and criminals you count up, the more money you get for the system.  It’s perverse, unjust, and inhuman.

      1. And perfectly Orwellian.

        One wonders if these apparatchiks would have it down to such a fine art if old George hadn’t written them a manual…

  2. Give her a job on Mythbusters. She’s got game at a young age, she just need to have her superpowers molded the right way.

      1. That’s cute, but who’s to decide if it’s scientific documentation or a manifesto?  I feel so sorry for this girl.  Right when we need both minority and female interest in the sciences, stuff like this happens.

  3. The Miami New Times isn’t exactly absolved of hyperventilating a bit about the affair, either.  

    that’s exactly what happened after an attempt at a science project went horribly wrong.

    “Horribly wrong” leads me to envision burns, fatalities, or at least a severed finger or two.  Loud noises don’t qualify.

    1. If the article went on to contextualise the horror as it’s understood here, that’d make perfect sense…

      But somehow I guess there’s isn’t as much sensationalism in whipping folks up into a frenzy over how they’re being whipped into a frenzy.

  4. I have seen this story around, and have a good deal of skepticism that this was a science experiment that exploded “to her surprise”, given that toilet bowl cleaner + aluminum foil + plastic bottle is a well-known recipe for a homemade “bomb”. Making constructing this on school property kind of a bonehead move. It is of course still the case that the reaction of school officials and law enforcement is very much out of proportion, and a shame that we feel the need to react in a way that can turn a single bonehead move into serious lifelong consequences for a promising student.

    1. It’s just a pressure “bomb”.  Just like putting dry ice in a coke bottle.  She should be punished but I think getting the law involved is going way too far.

      1. Why should she be punished? If the authorities want to ensure she never blows up the school ever, there’s a good chance the bang that scared the crap out of her did that.

        If they want to make a student suffer, well that’s what punishment is all about.  But it’s not what education is all about.

        If they want to seem like they’re “doing something” about this “serious problem,” there are ways that are less cruel, and still give them executive cover and plausible deniability.

        But there’s a good chance they don’t even know what they want, except for the TV cameras to go away.

        1.  Realistically she does need to know it’s not cool to explode things unsupervised in places where other people could be maimed (10% NaOH solution can cause permanent blindness).  From my perspective the ideal solution would be a week or maybe two of detention with a chemistry teacher so that she can learn proper safety policies for working with chemicals.

          DA should be charged with reckless endangerment for trying to use a felony charge to ruin the young woman’s life.

          1.  This.  And all subsequent violent things that happen to a previously model-student at juvie. 

      2. I don’t think punishment is the answer.  A calm little talk with the science teacher about what went wrong is about all I’d recommend.  Science means making mistakes, and punishing kids for honest mistakes is a quick way to discouraging them from doing science.

        1. I agree.  Machio Kaku built a particle accelerator in his garage and didn’t go to prison.

        2. Fuck science, just like Lamar Smith says.

          School isn’t about learning awesome stuff like science, it’s about learning to submit to complete control.

          1. Ain’t that the truth.

            Let’s churn out some more little robots to pay their taxes. 

    2. If it is “of course” the case that the reaction of law enforcement is excessive, then does the fact of intent or accident actually matter? 

      1.  Intent is a necessary element of any felony charge in most states.  I don’t know the specific statutes in question here, but I would be surprised if a specific intent to harm others or knowingly acting in a reckless disregard for the safety of others was not a required element to prove she violated the felony crimes with which she has been charged.

        1. You may think the police response was proportionate if you think she acted with intent, but the deleted OP did not think that of law enforcement.

  5. That’s a complete lie that she didn’t know what was going to happen.  Every kid in my high school knew what happens when you mix drano and aluminum foil.  She was making a bomb and she knew it.

    1. Or, given that, statistically speaking, not every person could possibly know this, she actually didn’t know. And so a friend spread that knowledge, she thought it incredulous and out of curiosity attempted to replicate the reported results. That’s science.

      #KieraWilmot on twitter. Find the petition, get the phone numbers for the superintendent and SA Office, make some calls, make some change.

    2. Yer quite a psychic.  I took two years of honors biology and a year of honors chemistry in high school.  Got the highest grade anyone had achieved to date on the chemistry final exam, according to the teacher.  I had to be cautioned not to try the old chlorine and hydrogen gas in the balloon, ignited by the light of a burning strip of magnesium a few feet away, since it sounded like great fun to me.  I covered a lot of ground back then, but ended up being a Theatre Arts major in college and working in TV and Film production as an adult.

      Somehow, the ol’ Drano+Foil gag never crossed my mind.  If a friend had told me to try it, I’d have been suspicious and asked what to expect.  But that’s only because of the quality of my friends.  Such as they were.  I blew up a thing or two, and I’ve known for a very long time to avoid mixing, say, ammonia and chlorine bleach, but until today I hadn’t heard of this particular gag.

      Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Ms Wilmot did not expect the outcome, and that’s no reflection at all on her character, intelligence, or aptitude.

      Too bad you weren’t around to be the hero.

      1. That’s because Drano and Foil don’t do anything remarkable.

        What she was working with was Works Toilet bowl cleaner, which is HCl.  It’s a damn strong acid for $1.50 per 16oz.  (There are other brands, but this one I know works.)

        1. Drano and foil most certainly do react. Both strong acid (such as the HCl you mention) and strong base (such as Drano) will attack aluminum with the release of hydrogen. Alumina, which passivates aluminum, is amphoteric.

          1. Perhaps in purely chemical terms it will, but having mixed Drano and tin foil a half a dozen times I’ve never seen it do anything worth while (at least not in a reasonable amount of time).  I’ve even noticed when mixing Works with tin foil that the quality of foil matters.  High quality tin foil takes much longer to start reacting than the cheapest Dollar Store stuff you can get.

          2. Like Boris said, either acidic or basic drain cleaner would work. Chemistry major here. I don’t know what went wrong with bc’s experiment, but either type of cleaner will react and make aluminum give off hydrogen. 
            Except in that the drain cleaner is caustic, and the hydrogen is flammable, it isn’t any more dangerous than baking soda and vinegar. 

      2. I would never have known such a thing at 16, even after taking AP Chemistry. Maybe an idiot friend said it’d be interesting but didn’t explain the effect. Maybe she felt, quite reasonably, that a school science lab was a safer place to conduct an experiment than a home or open field where she wouldn’t have access to standard lab safety equipment. I have no idea, but if there is to be any punishment it ought to *depend on* those reasons. And it doesn’t. :(

  6. I’m inclined to doubt that she honestly mixed aluminum and Draino together without knowing the result; but, even if entirely willful, the expulsion and charges are absurd.

    Would mentos and diet coke or vinegar and baking soda get the same response?

      1. “Bottle bombs” are felonies in many municipalities due to the fact that they carry the potential to cause serious injuries. Two teens in Pasadena were charged with throwing one at a six-year-old girl last year. It’s tempting to dramatize this by bringing race into the issue, but that’s reading a lot into it. 

        1. Making something and throwing it at a small child are two very different things. If those teens had thrown a brick at the girl they’d be just as culpable.

        2. I’m blind in one eye, thanks to a vinegar + baking soda “bottle bomb” that I assembled when I was 10, using instructions from a children’s science book. So I feel especially qualified to speak out on the dangers. 

          Yes, they can be dangerous. But no, the proper response does not involve law enforcement. Supervision, safety goggles and a discussion about safety precautions and the underlying science are much more appropriate.

      2. Particularly a white boy. She violated the gender roles by both experimenting with science and causing this type of mischief. Couple that with being a minority and we arrive at felony charges for a firecracker.

    1.  Fuck.  I grew up in creepy Florida.  We got our little mitts on muratic acid; same drill-aluminum foil, 2 lt bottle, shake and throw.   Luckily, that was the 90s, Florida was too busy wheling and dealing between the state’s coffers and insurance co’s by sending troubled kids to private psych clinics to get us in a fluff over pranks.

  7. I’m sure that if this were an incident where she was the victim of abuse from one of the school’s athletes, the faculty would be more than happy to cover up the entire incident for the sake of not wanting to destroy the young man’s future career and do whatever they could to keep the public from finding out.

    1. A thousand times this.  But goddamn it, I simply can’t bring myself to Like it.

    2. Yes, but even if it did come out, the community would rally around and help him move past the trauma of his rape.

  8. Seems like the punishment is nonsense, but so is the characterization as a “science experiment”.  

    If I break a window, do I get to characterize it as an investigation as to the impact strength and brittle fracture properties of plate glass?

    1. “If I break a window…” you should be charged with vandalism.  Please point me to the damage to property that this kid caused that makes your example relevant.

      1. No property damage here, but I think setting off unsupervised explosions at school is sensibly against the rules.  Even experiments that don’t utilize hazardous, toxic, corrosive chemicals or result in explosions should be supervised and in a formal class setting.  This is just reasonable safety policy for doing “science experiments” at school.

         Zero tolerance rules are nonsense of course, and criminal charges for breaking school rules are obscene.

        1. Agreed.  She did something stupid/hazardous in an uncontrolled and unsupervised way.  As such she should be corrected, informed, and hell, maybe even taught (if they still do that in schools) the correct way to experiment with chemical reactions.

          “Zero tolerance rules are nonsense of course, and criminal charges for breaking school rules are obscene.”

          This is what the focus of this story should be on.

    1. One of my middle school classmates made a pipe bomb for a science class c. 1970. It was considered an acceptable class project.

      1. i gave a paper in my public speaking class about 13 years ago on various “homemade pyrotechnics”  that was pretty much cribbed from &totse and old anarchist cookbook recipes,  got an A.  i don’t think i covered drano bombs, just some old favorites like flaming tennis balls stuffed with strike anywhere matches, and basic pipe bombs 101.   no demonstrations, but what the hell is science class for if not to accidentally blow shit up?

      2. My brother-in-law made a railgun for a high school science project in the mid-80s.  I think he actually did get in trouble for it, though.

  9. This is the region of Florida that is historically ok with the KKK, so while I’d like to say it isn’t a race issue it’s generally hard to ignore in a case of a vast overreaction.

  10. Under existing standards, any kid with some skills in science is in danger of being prosecuted as a criminal offender or a terrorist.

    Let’s see, here is a list of my scientific misdeeds while in junior-high school:

    1) I once made a volcano for a project at school, but added too much gun powder. As a result, a large flame shot out of the volcano like it was from a rocket. The flame extended from the volcano to about two-thirds of the way to the ceiling of the classroom! I also added a smoke-producing chemical to the gun powder, which forced the teacher and students to open up the windows to ventilate the classroom and get rid of the smoke. I was never disciplined nor got in trouble for this incident (not even a rebuke). I’m just thankful the volcano didn’t blow up like a bomb.

    2) At home with my chemistry set and a booklet of experiments, I occasionally made hydrogen gas and ignited it, creating minor explosions (somewhat larger explosions occurred when the hydrogen became mixed with more oxygen than I intended).

    3) Also at home, I made chlorine gas, which was piped into a “chamber of death” inside a beaker. Here, I discovered that chlorine gas could turn steel wool into instant rust, that it would turn leaves instantly black, and it would kill insects. I thought about making larger amounts of chlorine gas outside, but decided that it was too risky.

    4) I made hot-air balloons from plastic dry-cleaner bags using an alcohol burner and copper wire. Once, one of these balloons managed to escape and headed directly towards the neighbor’s house (with wood siding). Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it before the neighbor’s house caught on fire.

    My parents apparently were never aware of the fact that I sometimes used my chemistry set (a gift for Christmas) as a small chemical warfare factory.

    1. My nephew is an engineering major and tinkerer extraordinary. By the third visit from the cops, we all decided it was cause for pride. When he built a working model of an internal combustion engine from K’nex, we celebrated twice- first because it was awesome, second because he could take it to school!

  11. In my highschool chemistry class, our teacher dropped Potassium into water so the whole class could watch it explode.  He also lit magnesium on fire and showed it still burning while underwater.   He also did the ususal liquid nitrogen experiments.

    It was to teach us that science was both powerful and wonderful, both dangerous and fulfilling.

  12. The crazy mom who bought sperm from the internet and made her daughter inseminate herself…that’s just fucked up.  However it’s things like this that make me loose faith in humanity, not someone who is clearly insane. 

    It’s called learning a life lesson people.  Hell I’ve made these plenty of times.  The first time I knew exactly what would happen, well to a degree.  And actually the bottle didn’t explode, the lid blew off and it took off like a rocket.  We were outside in the yard and I thought it was pretty cool.  The next day I tried again, but since it took a while for the reaction to get going I mixed it up inside…..needless to say as I ran out the front door, screamed to my dad who was in the driveway (GTFO), and slung it as hard as I could it exploded about 20 foot from the house.  I learned a valuable lesson that day, don’t mix up things that can explode inside.

    When the hell did adults forget what it was like to be kids? 

    1. When the hell did adults forget what it was like to be kids?

      I sometimes think that the kind of turkey who carries on like this never was a kid, but is rather some sort of alien in disguise, ala They Live.

    2. It’s not a life lesson if you’re charged with a fellony for mixing a couple household items together in an off-label manner.

  13. Here’s a petition my friend started to the police and school, currently almost 6500 signatures. http://www.change.org/petitions/the-bartow-police-and-bartow-high-school-drop-charges-against-kiera-wilmot

    1.  Thanks.  I kept scrolling down because I knew someone would.  Can we also kick-start her a hot shot attorney and private home tutoring until college?

  14. And now you all know why many people snicker when the authorities say they searched the house and found ‘bomb making supplies’.

    This paranoia needs to end.  As a society we are going to take a bright child who is curious and destroy her life in some sort of pagan ritual meant to make us ‘safer’ and leave her broken with no real future to look forward to.  I fail to grasp how this is allowed to happen and what “benefit” it will provide.  Sure hope she wasn’t destined to discover a new class of antibiotic to save us from the superbugs we are currently breeding.

  15. There was an article some years ago, I want to say in the NYT about how many prominent scientists, including most at NASA, had gone through a developmental phase in their scientific education that involved blowing up stuff.  The article was generally pro-explosive.  

    1. Anyone who’s seen October Sky would have a decent understanding of the link between rocket science, aeronautics, and a childhood fascination with blowing shit up.

      And BTW, if you haven’t seen it, do. It’s great.

    1. It says something that the linked article shows that the Miami New Times has an actual “WTF Florida” category.

  16. the discipline gap that treats minority kids more harshly for small infractions.

    It’s all that and more.   The zero tolerance crusaders, who are heavily enabled by childless voters and parents who believe their own kids never do wrong, want to punish all “bad” kids excessively – not just minorities.  However, cronyism and/or application of large sums of money can derail the process, because of widespread local government corruption – but minorities tend to have less access to such levers, mostly because of modern racism and lingering effects of historical racism, which means that despite attempts at equally vicious unfairness, the rod falls heavier on the poor and disenfranchised, who are more likely to be people of color.

  17. I get the feeling American officials on every level behave more and more like a hysterlical middle class mom; terrified of anything sexual or non-pc, hysterical knee-jerk reactions to even the tiniest transgression, all veiled with a superficial kindness to anything that fall within her scope of appropriate behaviour. And with a mean streak underneath it all. US officials are becoming Beverly Suthpin.

  18. If you honestly think this is unfair and wrong, you cannot simply complain here, you have to do something. At the minimum write an Email to the Principle, Judge, and the girls family. If you’re well spoken and can control your temper while talking to idiots, you might call the Principle, the School Board, and the Prosecutor for good measure.

    B*tching online won’t make these fear-mongering, attention-needy tyrants change behavior. You have to engage them more directly.

    Ruling by fear, even if it’s fear of an “outside,” is the mark of a tyrant.

  19. Ah – Florida, Florida, Florida.

    Always first to spot the dangerous criminals, and deal with them heavy-handedly.

    That’s why the crime rate is so low in places like … Miami.

  20. Well, here we see yet another example of “rules and consequences” entirely untouched by real thought and logic. Gee, I wonder why kids get so cynical about the establishment these days.

  21. Thank you for this breezy report. Perhaps you could discuss the harm that can be caused by the chemicals in her mixture.

    1. Good point. I wonder if the harm that low molar HCL and aluminum foil could match the harm caused by having your school expel you and support arresting you for failing at an attempt to perform an experiment.

  22. The only surprise should be the rather harsh punishment. This girl would have well known that a draino bomb would explode, and displayed extremely poor judgement to perform such an ‘experiment’ on school property. Expulsion and charges may be an over reaction, but a weeks suspension would have been quite appropriate.

  23. As already mentioned, this is neither terrorism nor science, but a prank.

    I would not be surprised to find that the sinister triple-dog-dare played a role here.

  24. I feel sorry for the girl. I expect that the result of her punishment will be that she will become discouraged from doing science any more.

    Funnily enough, what she did sounds very similar to what I and a bunch of my friends got up to in high-school in 1970’s Australia.

    On our “muck-up day” at the end of high-school, we filled a number of
    soft plastic drink bottles with a 2:1 hydrogen-oxygen mix, made simple
    glycerin/ permanganate fuses and dropped them outside classrooms when
    everyone was in class. The resulting bang was enough to startle but not
    harm anyone.

    We did not get punished for this and our wonderful chemistry teacher in fact helped us make these “explosives”.  What’s more, he taught us a lot about science through his various demonstrations of chemistry, often of flame (or explosion) producing reactions. We learnt about making gunpowder, thermite, pool chlorine fireballs, ammonium dichromate volcanoes and the classic sodium in water.

    No-one ever got hurt as safe practice was taught and we were often made to try out the reactions ourselves. We learnt a lot and got a healthy respect for handling dangerous chemicals.

  25. She should know by now that school is no place for science or exploration.

  26. I think Florida should retroactively charge Don Herbert (AKA Mr. Wizard) with charges of terrorism. After all he routinely had kids perform dangerous, albeit well-supervised and explained, experiments. Or perhaps they should just charge the kids who appeared on his show. I particularly remember one young person who sprayed oven cleaner on a roll of aluminum foil, and then watched it burst into flames.

    1. Pauperjojo:

      1) Have them talk with a reasonable and caring person at the local hospital to help her understand what can happen when things go wrong. Just a conversation, nothing more (no need for gruesome images)
      2) Find someone in the community who is willing to do constructive DIY / STEM based exercises with the kids that involve explosives.

      When I was 12 I started very small, and controlled fires at school. It was fun, I was intrigued by this, and had no desire to damage anything. The principal got involved when I was discovered, and he had me talk with the local fire chief. All of these people involved were awesome, I never started a fire again (at school), and went on with my life. 

  27. As much as people on here like to get bent out of shape about this, I am more than highly skeptical.

    Did she unknowingly mix the two and accidently create an explosion? I seriously doubt it. Would the school condone an experiment done by a student that would create an explosion? I seriously doubt it.

    In all likelihood, the recipe was found on the internet. School lab was used in an unauthorized and dangerous way to “test” it out. Students could have been hurt. It is likely against policy, and law to do so. Hence the expulsion, and letting the authorities know about the incident for possible criminal charges.

    Anyway I seriously doubt this is the case of the poor scientist being targeted by overzealous authority trying to muzzle science, etc… This is a kid that did something wrong and dangerous being punished so that others do not do the same thing. “Only conducting an experiment”… BS. I am surprised that people of the actual scientific community would be naive to come to defend these kind of actions.



    1. Curious. Not that bright though. This is not what I would call a bright move, bringing caustic materials to school and performing “science experiments” (without gloves, eye protection, fume hoods, splash guards, wash stations, and all the other wonderful toys that are usually involved in real science).

  29. I think the school officials said it best: Kids need to learn their actions have consequences. Unless you’re a financier who helps to crash an economy, or a president who starts a war under false pretenses, or a company that poisons a town full of people in a foreign country.

    But if you’re using drugs or not listening to your teachers: consequences.

  30. Very upsetting, I wonder who the prosecutor is for this case.  They need to be shamed in the same way that the Arron Schwartz prosecutor shamed. These overly aggressive prosecutors need to be called out.

  31. Very disappointed in boing boing & most of the readership. This girl is a moron, she is not to be commended for doing stupid moves like this. Draino is very caustic. If enough force had been generated before the bottle blew, or if it blew the right way, she could have really hurt her or someone else. There’s a time an a place for science experiments, and she chose poorly. I’m not even a parent, so this isn’t some “OMG YOU COULD HAVE PUT YOUR EYE OUT” rant. But yeah, she could have blinded herself had some of the reactants splashed out in the “explosion”. I used to pull shit like this with friends back in high school (mid nineties, before columbine) and I was smart enough to not try this shit at school. 

    I’m completely fine with expulsion as a punishment. Being tried as an adult is overkill. She didn’t try to or accidentally hurt anyone; law enforcement should not be involved.

    1. I’m always amazed at how willing people are to punish each other for what “could have” happened.  I myself prefer to wreak horrific revenge for things that actually have happened, but that’s terribly unfashionable these days I guess.

      1. So I suppose you’d be completely fine if someone aimed a gun at your head and shot the wall 2 inches to either side. Hey, they didn’t ACTUALLY shoot you, right? Or how about something more benign, like running a red light. Just blowing through it even though it’s been red for 20-30 seconds. What’s the harm?

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