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Rice student fights state creationism law

By Jennifer Ding     8/22/12 7:00pm


Hanszen College sophomore Zack Kopplin is working to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows classrooms to critique what the state deems scientific controversies, one being evolution. Kopplin has received various national awards for speaking against laws promoting creationism education. The Thresher sat down to talk with him. 

Rice Thresher: Describe your mission. 

Zack Kopplin: To promote the teaching of good science and increase funding for science. 

RT: You seem to have focused on one specific aspect of science. How did you decide on this? 

ZK: It was the one that made the most sense at the time, although I'm not solely interested in [fighting laws allowing creationism education]. Now that I've established where I am and what I like to do, I'm branching out from evolution into climate change. 

RT: How did you get involved in this project in the first place? 

ZK: Sheer dumb luck. I had a senior project that I had to do to graduate from high school and I didn't really want to do any of things my classmates were doing, like how to cook or how to play trombone. I realized I was actually interested in [the Louisiana Science Education Act], so I sent an email to Dr. Barbara Forrest who is a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University [...] and one of the foremost experts on creationism. I met with her and started working on a repeal of the act. 

RT: What does this act entail? 

ZK: It allows creationism to be brought into science classrooms through supplemental materials to critique what they call controversies: evolution, climate change, the origins of life and also cloning. Cloning is the dead giveaway why [the Act] isn't legitimate [...] there is no debate on whether cloning has happened. 

RT: The Act legalizes the teaching of creationism? 

ZK: It gives legal cover. [The teaching of creationism in public school science classrooms] is unconstitutional per the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case. This teaching violates the first amendment, and it's also not science. 

RT: So what happens when a school breaks this law? 

ZK: They are going to get taken to court. Most likely many schools are breaking this law, but there has to be someone who's willing to come out and stand up and sue. That is a much higher bar than actually breaking the law. 

RT: How do you propose creating a change? You can't change the community's social beliefs. 

ZK: Schools can teach whatever they want, and whoever wants to send their children to the schools can have them learn whatever they want. The difference is right now we are taking away money from our public schools [through the voucher program] to give to these schools that are teaching dragons are real. That's where it crosses the line. 

RT: Could you speak on your project involving Nobel Laureates? 

ZK: Right now we have a letter asking for the repeal of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act. We started getting signatures [of Nobel Laureates who support our cause] in 2010, and now we have 78. My favorite is Sir Harold Kroto. He was the first one I talked to. He is a British Nobel Laureate who worked closely with the Nobel Laureates at Rice to discover the Buckyball. 

RT: How would you say Texas compares with Louisiana? 

ZK: Louisiana is No. 1 in creationism. Texas is close behind. For a while Louisiana was the only state [to have a creationism law], but this spring Tennessee passed its own creationism law so now there are two. There is another creationism law that is going to be introduced [in Texas], and I'll be busy fighting that in the spring. 

RT: What does "fighting" entail? 

ZK: I'm going to go to the Texas legislature and explain why they should not pass it, and hopefully get some kids out there with me to explain to the legislature that it's a bad idea. 

RT: How does it feel to be in the public eye? 

ZK: I try to separate Rice and real life. It's changing a little bit this year now [...] There are points where I can't be separated from my computer or cell phone because I may actually have to answer a call that's important. It's sort of weird. 

RT: I've heard you've received some interesting awards. 

ZK: The non-risque one is the National Center for Science Education's Friend of Darwin Award. NCSE is a science advocacy group that I've worked closely with on a lot of things, and that was a huge honor. The more interesting one was the Playboy one. I got an email over Spring Break and was very confused because I thought it was a gigantic practical joke. That was my initial reaction. Then I got an email a few minutes later from the NCSE confirming that it was actually real. It was their First Amendment Award. What not as many people know is Playboy actually had a big First Amendment case [...] The state legislature tried to not allow Playboy to have naked pictures or to censor [the pictures] in general, and [Playboy] won that case. It's interestingly been a precedent for a lot of other cases and is one of the major First Amendment rulings. So Hugh Hefner's daughter started a foundation to give out an award in his honor every year. 

RT: So you got to meet Hugh Hefner? 

ZK: I got to shake his hand. I wouldn't really say I met him. He was inside his room, and they brought him out to do pictures. 

RT: What was the mansion like? 

ZK: No bunnies around. They were very insistent on black tie. They were actually a bit embarrassed because they wanted Hefner to wear a suit, but he came out in his bathrobe, which is him I guess. The interesting thing is they have a lot of wild animals, basically a zoo. They have a lot of albino peacocks. I can send you some pictures of various Playboy mansion things. 

Follow Zack on Twitter at @zackkopplin and like his page on Facebook for more information on his projects and frequent updates on his work to repeal the Lousiana Science Education Act. 

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