Metro

Cambridge kids build clocks to honor Texas teen

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Students at the Cambridge workshop used modular electronic parts to construct clocks in solidarity with a Texas student who was arrested.

CAMBRIDGE — Third-grader Ari Lavine doesn’t mince words when it comes to what happened to the 14-year-old boy who was arrested in Texas last month after officials determined that the homemade clock the teen brought to school to be a hoax bomb.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Lavine said Saturday of Ahmed Mohamed’s ordeal.

The 8-year-old Lavine was among about 40 children who gathered Saturday in the Curious George Room at the Cambridge Public Library to build clocks in honor of Mohamed, whose arrest in September ignited a national debate about racism and profiling.

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Luke Kirkland, communications librarian at the library, said he was inspired to organize the event after hearing Mohamed’s story. The library planned two sessions and purchased 10 electronic circuit kits known as
“littleBits” for the event, Kirkland said.

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The kits will be incorporated into the library’s collection, he said.

The event drew many children who said they are tinkerers like Mohamed who enjoy taking apart toaster ovens and computers at home.

Police ultimately decided not to charge Mohamed, a Muslim from a prominent Sudanese family. But some of the young scientists and engineers who attended the Saturday event are minorities who wondered what they would do if one of their creations was mistaken for something nefarious.

“It’s just ignorance,” said Shane Barnes-Thomas, 12, a student at TechBoston Academy. “There’s tons of racism in the world.”

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His mother, Lorraine Barnes, said Shane learned about Mohamed on the news.

“He was totally engaged. Like, ‘Wow. That could have been me,’ ” she said.

Rahul Bhargava, a research scientist at the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told students that he identifies with Mohamed.

“I was that kid. I was Ahmed,” he said. “I learned to become an engineer by taking stuff apart in my basement.”

“My daughter’s 5,’’ he said. “This is what I do with my daughter and I want to know that she’s not going to get arrested for it.”

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During the sessions, children wore safety goggles and took apart different electronic equipment, including a VCR and a guitar pedal. Then they were given a cup full of “littleBits” pieces that, when assembled, create an electronic timer. What they didn’t get were any instructions.

Twelve-year-old boys Isaiah Josephs, of Mattapan, and Wayne Whyles, of Dorchester, hunched over the
“littleBits” and tried to figure out how to synch the different circuits so they would accurately count seconds and minutes.

Whyles said if he had been in Mohamed’s position, he would have tried to explain his creation was a clock not a bomb. He said he’s glad President Obama met with Mohamed.

“That gave him motivation to not give up on science and engineering because of one incident,” he said.

Barnes-Thomas, the TechBoston student said, “It’s not right for someone to get arrested for good work.”

“It’s a clock,” he said. “The teacher definitely could have taken some time to actually look at it, see what it was, instead of being judgmental automatically.”

In the days leading up to the event, Kirkland said the library received criticism online from Mohamed’s detractors, some of whom complained that his creation was not unique, and others who were bothered by his visit with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a wanted war criminal.

No one, however, came to the library to protest the event.

Lavine, the third-grader, said Mohamed would be proud of the young clockmakers in Cambridge. “I think he would think it was pretty cool,” he said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.