Ahmed’s Clock: A Project That Tells Much More Than Time

In 2015, most of the world had heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 9th grader in Texas who was arrested after bringing a clock to school that, to school administration, looked like it could be an explosive device.  The issue sparked a controversy as was explained in an article in The Washington Post.

Some say the school over-reacted because of the boy’s heritage, since the project was a working clock that simply appeared to be in the form of a suspicious device.  If something like this was found in an airport, unattended, the reaction and resultant consequence could have probably been the same.  However, since this was a student who has created something that demonstrates an interest and capacity in engineering and technology skills, he has received accolades and apologies for what happened to him.

Others have said that the student didn’t “build” a clock, but took a working clock apart, and put it in a different case.  In the business world, this is a common practice known as “repurposing,” which is defined as, “To use or convert for use in another format or product.”  (Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/repurposing).

Building electronic projects from scratch, however, is not beyond the realm of possibilities.  It was done in the 1970’s and 80’s with electronic components that were readily available from stores like Radio Shack.  One could even buy simple metal boxes to house projects like this.  Some of the recent documentaries on lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates show these men and their friends creating circuit boards and soldering electronics together in hopes of achieving something great.  That’s the same type of spirit STEM education desires to engender, creating projects which combine the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

From an education perspective, there’s a more interesting question to consider.  Seeing all the publicity this case generated, will other students complete similar projects as demonstrations of their genuine interest in STEM, or to see if the reaction to their project is a similar one?

Detractors have commented that if this was an example of repurposing, then is all the publicity an example of rewarding behavior that isn’t necessarily outstanding?  Or did this young man design and solder all the electronics on the circuit board together, testing them with the display to see what type of voltage regulator would be necessary to power the device?  Did he find the instructions regarding how to build a clock this online, and really didn’t create something – just like following a recipe to “create” a quiche?  Then, is the only issue that it “looked” like it could be dangerous, and if the project was housed in a different type of container, would there be such a controversy?  Or were underlying cultural prejudices at work here as well?

Perhaps the real learning here is awareness.  It’s now not beyond the realm of possibilities to realize STEM education could give students the knowledge to create destructive devices.  Educators need to know what the goals of any initiative are, how to communicate those goals to students, and how to properly assess the learning, with an eye to positive and worthwhile outcomes…not destructive ones.

Perhaps the instructions for such a project need to communicate the following:  “If it looks like something that someone thinks will hurt other people, then bad things will happen to you.”   In 2014, students across the country were arrested for bringing toy guns to school.  While the consequences for this incident set the precedent by bringing something to school that “looks” dangerous but is not, why is the reaction to these consequences so different now that technology is an element in the equation?  Are schools following precedents, policies, procedures, or prejudices?  Will their explanations be accepted, and what will the consequences of their actions be?