Student at Rice U. Battles a Law That Allows the Teaching of Creationism

Courtesy of Zack Kopplin

January 28, 2013

Zack Kopplin was only 14 when the Louisiana Science Education Act passed, but he says he was adamantly against it from the beginning. The law permits public-school science teachers to use supplemental materials in their lessons, which critics say opens the door to the teaching of creationism. As a high-school senior, Mr. Kopplin worked on a project to repeal the law with Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is a vocal critic of intelligent design, the belief that some form of intelligence helped shape the universe and the various forms of life within it. Now 19 and a sophomore majoring in history at Rice University, Mr. Kopplin has made headlines with his continued efforts to overturn the act, including advocating the introduction of two repeal bills in the Louisiana Legislature and helping write a letter calling for repeal that was signed by 78 Nobel laureates. The Chronicle's edited conversation with Mr. Kopplin follows.

Q. How did your advocacy for science education begin?

A. After the Louisiana Science Education Act passed, I assumed that someone would immediately take it on and fight it. And over the next two years, I didn't see any real attempts to repeal it. I realized that if no one else was going to take it on, I'd have to do it.

Q. How much progress have you made?

A. I started very naïve with this. I thought that just being right and being on the side of a good cause would be enough to convince our elected officials to do the right thing. I've learned a lot more about the process since then. But eventually I think the Legislature will pass this bill to repeal the law.

Q. What has been the most difficult part of the campaign?

The toughest part was last spring. We had halted everything creationists were doing in Louisiana and were slowly undoing it, and then Tennessee passed a creationist law. It was just like, for all the hard work you're doing, sometimes you still lose. 

Q. Has anyone on the other side of the debate ever made a point that caused you to rethink your stance?

I have not found a single counterargument that I respect in terms of having creationism in public-school classes. If you teach a student creationism and say that it's somehow as valid as the scientific theory of evolution, how does that work with the theory of gravity? Does the scientific method apply to gravity? If you confuse kids about what science is, they're going to struggle to understand other topics, too. 

Q. What was it like to work with Nobel laureates on this issue?

They're very receptive to kids or anyone who comes to them with a good cause and earnestly asks for help. 

Q. Have your own educational and career goals been affected by your advocacy campaign?

Absolutely. I'm already starting on what's next. A friend and I are working on a new campaign, starting with asking for a trillion dollars in new science funding over the next 10 years in America. That's a high goal, but there's no reason to shoot for any lower.