When high school freshman Ahmed Mohamed brought his homemade digital clock to MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, he probably didn't expect to make international headlines.
But as the picture of the 14-year-old in handcuffs and a NASA teeshirt went viral, people around the world flooded social media with messages of solidarity, flagged #IStandWithAhmed. Supporters ranged from President Barack Obama to rapper Flavor Flav, and many were Ahmed's fellow inventors and engineers, especially in Silicon Valley.
"Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his page.
Local police had arrested Ahmed on Tuesday after his teacher thought his clock, which consisted of electronic components wired together inside a pencil case, looked like a bomb. Ahmed was interrogated by several officers before being handcuffed and taken to the local Texas police station.
"They asked me a couple of times, 'Is it a bomb?' And I answered a couple of times, 'It’s a clock,' " said Ahmed in an interview with MSNBC. After an hour and a half of interrogation, "They said, 'You’re under arrest,' and I said, 'For what crime?' They said, 'For a hoax bomb,' " he recounted.
Ahmed was released without charges, but he was still suspended from school for three days. The Irving high school even sent a letter home to parents stating that school administrators "responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus yesterday," and were "pleased" that Ahmed’s clock "did not pose a threat."
But the incident speaks to much larger issues. Many have questioned the hasty bomb assumption, attributing the accusation to Islamophobia.
"Ahmed's mistake? He is a Muslim teen and a person of colour," wrote IndiaTimes's Anjali Bisaria.
"He just wants to invent good things for mankind, but because his name is Mohamed and because of September 11, I think my son got mistreated," Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, told Al Jazeera.
According to the Washington Post, anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than before September 11, 2001.
But beyond the blatant race issue, Silicon Valley and the engineering science community pointed to another discrepancy: lack of support for student creativity and inventiveness in schools.
Ahmed, who brought the clock he built himself to school to "impress his teachers," expected to receive feedback and support, but instead was reprimanded by school and police officials. Fortunately, Ahmed's fellow nerds filled in the void.
In Silicon Valley, "where inventiveness, initiative and ingenuity are prized above all else," as USA Today noted, Ahmed has become a sudden hero. Some companies are offering Ahmed tours and internships, while most of the programmers and engineers simply encourage the teenager to continue exploring.
From Twitter and Foursquare:
And from the CEO of Autodesk:
Ahmed has also received support from his local hacking community, including a free membership to TheLab.ms, a hackerspace in the Dallas metro area.
"This kid took the initiative to make something and brought it to school. The leadership of the school was too ignorant to realize what the child had done – that shows how bad the education system is when it comes to STEM," a hacker who goes by the handle WhiskeyNeon told Motherboard.
The US Department of Education and President Obama have outlined a plan for increasing the availability of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – citing an "inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects."
At the college level, STEM is growing and students are more likely to receive the kind of encouragement Ahmed had hoped for from his high school teachers.
MIT astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein called Ahmed "a creative, independent thinker" and remarked that he was "the kind of student we want at places like MIT and Harvard."
"I thought I was going to be another victim of injustice," Ahmed told MSNBC. But the unexpected flood of social media support reassured Ahmed that he wasn’t – for which he was publicly grateful.