Going to college is tough enough without leading a campaign to stop creationism from being taught in school as an alternative to evolution, but that’s what Zach Kopplin, 19, has been doing for several years.
He began by taking on the badly named Louisiana Science Education Act, which actually allows teachers in science classrooms to discuss creationism as a way to question evolution. He even persuaded 78 Nobel laureates to sign onto to his effort. Now he has expanded his work to publicize creationist private schools that receive public money through school vouchers. His work earned him the first ever $10,000 “Troublemaker of the Year” given by an entrepreneur who wants to honor young people who make a lot of noise fighting for a good cause.
Evolution is, of course, the central principle around which all of the biological sciences revolve, and creationism is not a scientific alternative. But religious fundamentalists continue to push for creationism to be taught in schools. Here’s what cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote about teaching creationism in this post:
Why shouldn’t science teachers “teach the controversy?” Isn’t it the job of teachers to sharpen students critical thinking skills? Isn’t it part of the scientific method to evaluate evidence? If evolution proponents are so sure their theory is right, why are they afraid of students scrutinizing the ideas? Imagine this logic applied in other subjects. Rather than just reading Shakespeare and assuming he’s a great playwright, why not ask students to read Shakespeare and the screenplay to Battlefield Earth [a science fiction film starring John Travolta based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard], and let students decide? And hey, why is such deference offered to Euclid? My uncle Leon has an alternative version of plane geometry and it shows Euclid was all wrong. I think that theory deserves a hearing.
Now Kopplin’s work against the Louisiana law has led him to expand his research to include creationist schools in Louisiana and in other states that are receiving public money through school vouchers. He now has a database of more than 300 schools, which you can find here, with details about their school curriculum.
Here’s a Q & A I did with Kopplin, and a video in which Kopplin talks to BIll Moyers about his campaign.
Q) How did you get involved in fighting the Louisiana Science Education Act?
A) The Louisiana Science Education Act passed back in my sophomore year of high school. This law allows creationism to be snuck into public school science classrooms through the use of supplemental materials to “critique” evolution. It’s a so-called “academic freedom” bill which was drafted by the intelligent design creationism think tank, the Discovery Institute, and promoted locally by the religious right lobbying group, the Louisiana Family Forum, to teach the controversy over evolution. I got involved with this campaign [to repeal the act] my senior year of high school… So far we’ve gathered the support of 78 Nobel laureate scientists.
Q) Tell me about the effort to get the Nobel laureates to support your effort.
A) I drafted a letter from Nobel laureate scientists to the Louisiana legislature asking them to repeal the creationism law. I just e-mailed hundreds of Nobel laureates once a week, and each week a few more signed on until we built the letter to 78.
Q) What does the law do that you are opposed to? Do you have any real hope of repealing it?
A) The problem with this law is that there is no scientific controversy over evolution, only a political one. And the only real purpose to have a law like this is to sneak pseudo-science like creationism into classrooms. It gets even more clear that this law was meant for creationism, because it’s legislative sponsor, Senator Ben Nevers publicly stated that it was meant to put creationism into the classroom. I’m fundamentally opposed to compromising students science education by teaching creationism. I believe science is vital to the future of our species.
We’ve had two bills to repeal this law, and last spring we lost 2-1 in committee. We’re hoping we can get out of committee and keep our momentum this year.
Q) How did you get involved in exposing the creationist voucher schools?
A) Last summer, Alternet published a piece on a voucher school in Louisiana that taught the Loch Ness Monster was real and disproved evolution. These schools were receiving public money and this seemed to be relevant to my campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act and for accurate science to be taught with public money. I began to investigate Louisiana’s program and eventually the programs nationally and found that the public funding of creationism through vouchers was a widespread phenomenon.
Q) I understand you have a database of more than 300 creationist schools that get vouchers.
A) I’ve highlighted schools in the database that are teaching creationism or using what appears to be creationist curriculums. Many of these schools also teach revisionist history.
Q) Can you give me some descriptions of what they teach?
A) A school in Louisiana calls scientists sinful men. A school in Florida calls evolution the way of the heathen. Some schools in Indiana take their kids to the creationism museum. This blog post for PBS highlights some of the best examples of what’s being taught.
Q) Are you in school now? How do you have time to do all of this?
A) I’m a history major at Rice [University] right now and I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to. I’m definitely going to take a year or two off to establish an organization and a permanent base of activists nationwide.
Here’s the video in which veteran journalist Bill Moyers interviews Kopplin: