Science Fairs are great. At their best, they allow students some freedom to experiment and learn on their own. At their worst, they still provide hilarious examples of wacky adolescent science. Recently, we saw a field report from the National Center for Science Education blog. Peter Hess asked the question: What passes for “science” at a Catholic science fair?
In these pages, we’ve eagerly read reports from the field as science mavens visit various sorts of science fairs. P.Z. Myers has argued that creationist students actively use science fairs to subvert the mind-numbing mental boundaries imposed by creationism. Greg Laden visited a creationist homeschool science fair and found that some of the science was not bad. At least not much worse, Laden thought, than the crappy science on display at non-creationist science fairs.
Hess found to his great relief that his kids’ Catholic school promoted mainstream science, without adulteration from theology. Students came up with ambitious projects, such as measuring the distraction levels posed by cell phones and texting.
Hess also talked with some of the teachers. Those teachers, too, did not see any conflict between Catholicism and teaching mainstream science in their classes. One teacher offered an opinion that echoed the view of the late Stephen Jay Gould. As middle-school teacher Joseph Nagel told Hess,
I sometimes consider science to be the constant investigation of the external world, a quest to analyze and understand the physical world, exclusive of human experience. Religion I see as the eternal internal investigation, a search to explore and understand what lies within and between us, an examination of the human experience. If science is our understanding of the world, religion is our understanding of us. Maybe science is the ‘how’ and religion is the ‘why.’
Of course, different Catholic schools might have different approaches. But my experience matches up closely with that of Hess. I taught for a decade in Catholic schools in Milwaukee. Though we sometimes had arguments about the novels we’d teach or the theology we’d teach, there was never any glimmer of controversy over the science we’d teach.
In fact, at least one of our science teachers also taught biology (or was it chemistry?) at a local public, secular community college. When I asked him if he taught science differently at our Catholic school, he responded just as did the teachers Hess talked to: “Why would I?”