POTOSI, Mo. It wasn't particularly unusual that a group of bored-looking high school students were rolling their eyes Monday morning at a geeky science dude making lame jokes like "It's 'amino acids,' not 'mean-old acids."'
It was, however, unusual that the teenagers were sitting in their public school's library and that the geeky dude giving them a different perspective on science was not a scientist at all, but an evangelical Christian representing an organization promoting a literal interpretation of the Genesis story.
"I'm here to talk to you today about what we know and what we don't know in the world of science," Mike Riddle, a biblical creationist from Answers in Genesis, told the first of six groups of students he addressed. "And to talk about the possibilities there."
Riddle had been invited to Potosi High and John A. Evans Middle School by Randy Davis, superintendent of the Potosi-RIII school district, and his board to discuss science with science students. During an hour-long presentation, Riddle never said the words "Jesus" or "God" or even "religion." Over and over he prodded the students to question established scientific principles and theories and encouraged them to think about a career in science.
Science educators, public school administrators, church-state watchdog groups and the creationist movement's practitioners themselves all agree it's rare that an evangelical group gains front-door access to science students in a public school setting. Answers in Genesis said since its founding 12 years ago, it had been invited into a public school only five times.
Because of the constitutional issues involved, creationists have begun seeking entry through schools' back doors, via the students themselves. In conferences and workshop across the country, typically held in church halls, Answers in Genesis holds training sessions for seventh to 12th graders. Many of the students who participate come from Christian schools or are home schooled. But some parents pull their children out of public schools to attend the afternoon-long sessions, according to Mark Looy, a vice president and co-founder of Answers in Genesis.
"One of our major teaching themes is to encourage kids to foster critical thinking skills," Looy said. "Sadly, public schools offer a one-sided view when it comes to science, and it's right for students to ask why they're only hearing one side."
Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center of Science Education, sees it differently. "They prepare students to ask questions to embarrass teachers when talking about evolution," he said.