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‘Rocket Boys’ author helps young scientist after project blows up

By Charles Young

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia's Rocket Boy, remembering some escapades from his own youth, has come to the aid of a Florida science student who ran afoul of the zero tolerance authorities.   

Kiera Wilmot, 16, was expelled, arrested and charged with two felonies when her unauthorized science experiment went awry. Authorities have since said the criminal charges will be dropped but that Wilmot must complete a diversion program.

Now she will receive some special scientific training courtesy of West Virginia native Homer Hickam.   

Hickam, 70, is among several outraged members of the scientific community voicing support for Kiera, 16, whose troubles stemmed from her experiment causing a small explosion outside her high school.

Her simple mixture of aluminum foil and toilet cleaner in a plastic bottle caused a discharge of gas and an audible popping noise but no damage.

Still, Wilmot, an honors student with a keen interest in science, mathematics and robotics, was expelled from Polk County Public Schools on April 22.

She was arrested by police and charged with two felonies: discharge of a weapon on school property and discharge of a destructive device.

Because her teacher didn't authorize the experiment, the school enforced its "zero tolerance" policy toward weapons.      

So she can continue her studies, Hickam has personally offered Wilmot a scholarship to the U.S. Advanced Space Academy, a branch of Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. She has accepted.

At the academy, she will have the opportunity to take college-accredited classes and receive training to help prepare for college and a future career in the sciences.   

Hickam, who was portrayed by actor Jake Gyllenhaal in the 1999 film "October Sky," is a former aerospace engineer with NASA, a celebrated author and decorated Vietnam veteran.

But in 1958 he was a student at Big Creek High School in McDowell County and found himself in a situation similar to Kiera's.

A wayward rocket made by Hickam and his friends, who were known as the "Rocket Boys," was blamed for starting a forest fire. Police arrived at Hickam's school and removed the boys in handcuffs.

Their favorite teacher, Fredia Riley, played in the film by actress Laura Dern, came to their aid by demonstrating to authorities that such a rocket didn't have the range to reach the location of the fire.

The students were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, and their principal agreed to fund calculus classes as reparation for the incident.    

Based on his experience, Hickam said he immediately identified with Kiera's situation and decided to use his celebrity to help out.

"That I'm well-known around the country as both an author and an engineer allows me to have one foot planted in the arts and the other in the sciences," he said.  

"This gives me the opportunity to occasionally support a good cause in one arena or the other."  

 Hickam also has reached out to his Twitter followers and other members of the scientific community online to raise money for a second scholarship for Wilmot's twin sister, Kayla. His efforts have raised almost enough for the sisters to attend the academy together, he said.  

Science is in the girls' blood. Their mother, Marie, is a scientist at the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute.

Attempts to contact the Wilmot family were unsuccessful. Calls to the Polk County school board were not returned.

Kiera has told other media outlets she would like to meet Hickam in person and plans to read his books and watch "October Sky."

Online, numerous scientists and supporters also have shared stories about experiments gone awry.  

"I can't name a single scientist or engineer, who hadn't blown up, ripped apart, disassembled something at home or otherwise caused a big ruckus at school all in the name of curiosity, myself included," wrote DNLee, a blogger for Scientific American. "Science is not clean. It is very messy and it is riddled with mistakes and mishaps."

Hickam agreed and said he hoped the controversy could start a dialogue among educators about the practicality of rigid policies.    

"I hope it's a blow to the various 'zero tolerance' rules in schools," he said. "Every case is an individual case and should be handled as such."

A change in policies like those in Polk County would allow students the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as ensuring future generations' interest in the field - something Hickam said he felt was of vital importance.

"Ultimately, our country will succeed or fail based on whether we lead in science and engineering," he said. "We can't compete with labor rates, but we can compete very well by creating new products and techniques.

"Besides that, knowledge is a goal unto itself."


Wilmont's attorney, Larry Hardaway, said Thursday that criminal charges against his client have been dropped by the State Attorney's Office in Bartow, Fla.

Although both Wilmont and her mother are pleased by the dismissal, Hardaway said it is only half of the battle. Efforts will now be focused on returning the young scientist to her school.

"We have worked continuously for the past 18 days to resolve the criminal prosecution and the possibility of expulsion from her school," he said. "We now turn all of our attention to the issues affecting her education and schooling." Through her attorney, Wilmont said she is grateful for the outpouring of support she has received. The fear of being called a terrorist has haunted her since the incident occurred and she says she will never do another unauthorized experiment again.

Contact writer Charles Young at or 304-348-1796


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