No doubt last week’s arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed overwhelmed him and his family. I doubt that he expected to be detained in juvenile hall for bringing to school a homemade clock that a teacher thought looked like a bomb.
The story that resulted from it on social media rapidly generated a response that also must have been overwhelming to Ahmed and his family. Yet the reaction to Ahmed’s story was positive, a public recognition that Ahmed was a maker, a young inventor and science geek. “Every story like this previously read: “Bad student did bad thing,” wrote Jay Silver on the Sketching in Hardware mailing list. “This is, in the reaction, the best news on this subject ever.”
People reached out to me and thought it would be good to bring Ahmed to the upcoming Maker Faire in New York City. Numerous others — President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg — reached out to him and offered gifts, scholarships, internships and more.
The maker subculture responded like antibodies identifying and attacking something it saw as an infection in the mainstream culture — an inability to understand and appreciate science and technology, particularly in education. The personal or institutional biases against people of color or members of certain religions are part of this story, but our schools and communities also need to be places that elevate science and understand the role of technology in making our world a better place.
This weekend, I was at the Maker Faire at the EMP Museum in Seattle. There were Tesla coils, a 3-D printed unicorn lit with LEDs, DIY bioscience experiments and a huge solar-powered tricycle that had been to Burning Man. I also met several young makers who are pursuing their own interests in science and technology.
Two young girls, Destiny and Muz, are members of the Big-Brained Superheroes Club, which is an after-school program at the Yeller Community Center in Seattle. They were demonstrating a game to learn binary coding. As part of the project, the girls learned to use and program Arduino, wire the circuitry and connect up a large four-digit display — which, I noted, looked like a clock.
Nearby was Dan, a 12 year old whose project was called Neurobot. He had me wear a headband with sensors that connected to a program he wrote that read neural data and controlled the operation of a robot. Nine-year-old Luca had developed a foot-warming sole insert for shoes. Luca wondered how people living in the Arctic would keep their feet warm. He had learned about a thermocouple, a sensor to monitor the heat so he could turn it on or off, and he hacked his own sneakers to show that he could use that technology to solve the problem.
At Maker Faire, these young makers are celebrated. In a different context, they might be misunderstood. Wires and battery in a shoe, anybody? A maker project that might win a wearables competition or a science fair could get you in trouble at the airport. I was once carrying homemade “play dough” in my carry-on for a science project demonstrating that with salt, the dough can act as a conductor of electricity, and with sugar, it can act as an insulator, and can be used to build electric circuits that light LEDs. I tried explaining this to the TSA person, but they called men who identified themselves as the “Bomb Defusing Unit.” If I were not white, I might have raised more suspicion. Instead, the officer looked at me quizzically and said: “What is it you do?” “I do science demonstrations,” was my short answer for the moment, just hoping to make my flight.
At Ahmed’s school, his engineering teacher understood his project, but his English teacher was suspicious. When he was questioned by school officials and police, he apparently didn’t respond. I can only wish that they had asked him different questions, such as the ones you might get at Maker Faire: How does it work? Did you use an Arduino or Raspberry Pi? And did you face any problems getting it to work? I can only wish that the education was more interdisciplinary so that English teachers as well as science teachers might appreciate the creative and technical talents of young makers like Ahmed.
I believe the maker movement is starting to transform our schools by engaging students in hands-on learning and encouraging all students to explore science, technology and the arts. On Friday, the day before Maker Faire opens in NYC, we are organizing an education forum. We’ve invited educators who are leading the way to bring making into schools and give more hands-on experiences to more students. These educators are trailblazers, and they are changing the culture of school so that it can become a place that truly understands and supports the full range of abilities of its students. We need more teachers and parents to start the conversation in their own communities and schools.
This weekend, we will welcome Ahmed Mohamed and his family to World Maker Faire in Queens, NY. I hope he will discover that there is a community that will understand him and appreciate his work. I hope he will feel right at home.
Dale Dougherty is the founder and executive chairman of Maker Media Inc., which launched Make: magazine in 2005, and Maker Faire, which held its first event in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006. Dougherty forges strategic partnerships in support of maker education and global, cultural and economic initiatives. His vision and mission continue to be the guiding force for the family of brands. Reach him @dalepd.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.