Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How a Louisiana Student is Teaming With Top Scientists to Reform Science Education

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Lisa Winter

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12 Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How a Louisiana Student is Teaming With Top Scientists to Reform Science Education
Zack Kopplin

Zack Kopplin does not spend his time the way you might expect from a typical college student. At 20, it seems more likely for him to be out every night, killing more brain cells than he uses. Instead, he has become a noteworthy advocate for science education reform in public schools. 

In 2008, the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) was passed and signed into law. This gave K-12 educators the ability to critique subjects such as evolution and climate change. Though the Act states there should be no bias toward a religion, it opens the door for supplementary materials to be used, effectively “teaching the controversy” as desired by proponents of Intelligent Design and creationism. 


Is there an inherent harm in teaching creationism alongside evolution? Kopplin thinks so. “Creationism is not science,” he tells IFLS. “Evolution is the foundation of biology. Teaching creationism in science classrooms will confuse students about the nature of science and about the scientific method.” For science students to be successful, they must have proper instruction. Only 28% of high school biology teachers are enthusiastically teaching evolution. Close to 60% dabble in evolution, without getting into too many details. This could be due to an insecurity on the topic, as the majority high school biology teachers have never completed a course on evolution. Kopplin suspects fear of controversy is involved: “Creationism laws are part of what might intimidate some teachers not to teach evolution.”

When Kopplin saw that some schools were starting to implement creation-influenced textbooks, he dedicated his high school senior project to combatting this legislation. Assisted by Dr. Barbara Forrest, Senator Karen Carter Peterson, and Representative Walt Leger III, a repeal effort began in the spring of 2011.

In addition to science policy, Kopplin has taken on textbook standards and vouchers as part of his initiative. The government grants tax dollars to schools based on the number of students. If a student wishes to attend a private school or homeschool, a voucher can be granted to recuperate costs for the alternate school. Currently, ten states and the District of Colombia accept school vouchers. Working alongside MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Kopplin exposed over 300 schools who accept vouchers with specific religious agendas, teaching creationism instead of evolution. Added up, this amounts to tens of millions of taxpayer dollars being used to fund these institutions.

Since its inception, Kopplin’s efforts have received staggering support from the global scientific community. Many scientific organizations, clergy groups, and noteworthy scientists, including 78 Nobel laureates, have given direct support to the repeal of LSEA. Even with some of the top minds in the world behind him, Kopplin is not celebrating: “No matter how large this movement has grown, it is not big enough yet. We haven’t repealed the Louisiana Science Education Act and we haven’t put an end to anti-science legislation.” The repeal has been defeated three times, but he has managed to maintain the integrity of the textbooks used in Louisiana.


While there has not been a victory yet, evidence of the strength of Kopplin’s movement can be seen in the panic of his opposition. Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis, wrote an article desperately trying to discredit Kopplin, claiming he has been “brainwashed” into a “product of the system” who has “not been taught critical thinking skills.” Ham further attacks Kopplin’s efforts by speaking to the credentials of scientists on the AiG staff; claiming that creationists can perform science as well, if not better, than evolutionists. However, Ham fails to acknowledge that over 97% of all scientists accept evolution (the number is higher among those working in the life and Earth sciences), and his colleagues are in the distinct minority. This further proves the point that evolution is not a scientific controversy; it is a political one.

Unfortunately, there is a large disparity between the scientific community and the public, as only 39% of American adults believe in evolution, a number considerably lower than almost every other developed country. This debate will not end in Louisiana. Several other states face similar legislation or urge students to “critically analyze” the legitimacy of certain scientific theories, and use the palliative phrase “change over time” instead of just saying what it is: evolution.

In an attempt to bridge this gap and increase scientific literacy in the U.S., Kopplin and classmate Ben Simpson have introduced the Second Giant Leap: a proposition for one trillion dollars to be spent over the next ten years to fund scientific research and development. To begin, he is pushing for $35 billion to cover the amount cut during the sequester. 

Kopplin hopes this will “end denialist science legislation [and] the American public [will] become more aware and better educated about science.” Ultimately, he hopes to gain the attention of President Barack Obama who could urge congress in a State of the Union Address to fund the Second Giant Leap and “demand that our schools teach science.” The Second Giant Leap initiative gained momentum when the late Roger Ebert and Seth MacFarlane promoted it via Twitter. He recently became the youngest guest ever on Real Time with Bill Maher, taking economist Stephen Moore to task about the importance of funding basic research like snail mating habits. Understanding how snails reproduce has huge implications in combating parasites in developing countries.


Kopplin urges his supporters to get involved. “If you’re in Louisiana or Tennessee, fight to repeal the creationism law in your state. If you’re in other states like Missouri or Colorado, stand up against the passage of creationism laws. If you’re in a state considering school vouchers or currently have vouchers, step up and fight against them.  Everyone in the country can and should call Congress and ask them to support a Second Giant Leap and fund a trillion dollars of new scientific research and development over the next decade.”

Most recently, Kopplin has been fighting to keep creationism out of the textbooks that Texas students will use for the next decade. His efforts have been successful, as the state as not approved textbooks that confuse creationism with science. He has also recently filed a lawsuit against Superintendent John White, claiming White has not produced the records requested about Louisiana’s voucher program.


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