I’ve been writing lately about our first ever NCSE evolution camp. Yes, NCSE is actually running a camp. So far I’ve told you about challenges we faced from creationist campers, and how the friendly, respectful, and open culture we promoted around discussion in our camp helped kids talk about evolution. In this segment, you’ll see how this played out the rest of the week.
We pushed the kids pretty hard on evolution for the first two days of camp. On the third day, I felt it was time to pull back a little. In the morning we were going to take the kids on a nature hike to a fairly fossil-rich area, where we hoped to enforce yesterday’s lessons on adaptations in extinct and extant organisms. In the afternoon we would tour the State Hygenic Lab, a facility that tracks all sorts of critical public health measures for the state, and conduct lab experiments and meet lots of scientists. There wouldn’t be any explicit focus on evolution during this time, but we would be in another environment where acceptance of evolution was normal, where the kids would get to see and learn from adults with comfortable careers in the sciences, and where they could see the diversity of scientific careers in the public as well as private sectors.
The weather was beautiful for hiking. We all enjoyed being outside, and there were many interesting plants and animals to show the kids on the trail. We taught the kids about medicinal plants, we got to see lots of giant water snakes (always exciting), and even sighted my personal favorite bird, the little green heron. And then, on the rock dam where the kids could see so many fossils, there was a fight! Some of the kids started arguing about the age of the fossils and the age of the Earth. One of the little creationist campers became very upset and was yelling at the rest of the kids that they were wrong, that the earth was four thousand years old (as you can see, we had some very young earth creationists). Some of the other campers began yelling at this kid and calling him names.
One of our adult group leaders stepped in. He asked the kids to calm down and stop yelling. He said that everyone was allowed to think what they wanted to think, but that they should also be open to listening to people who specialize in this field and ask them questions before jumping to conclusions.
This approach worked out very well. The kids stopped yelling at each other. By taking the social pressure off the creationist kids, we reduced the insider/outsider problem that could keep them from learning about evolution. Most people tend to double down on their positions when they're backed into a corner. Feeling trapped and under attack does not put people in a frame of mind to think or grow. And that is definitely not how I wanted any of the campers to feel.
We finished the hike without further conflict, except for the response to my cruel prohibitions against swimming, catching snakes, or whacking each other with sticks. I know, I’m a monster! We had a conflict-free time at the State Hygenic Lab, which gave our kids such a great tour. Check out the schedule they put together for us, it was awesome.
The next two days had a very explicit focus on evolution. On Thursday we went to the National Mississippi River Museum, which has a new exhibit on dinosaur evolution. On Friday, we toured evolutionary biology labs at the University of Iowa, and then learned about evolution in the state of Iowa at the Museum of Natural History.
When we divided into small groups on Thursday, I had the care of one of our more outspoken young creationists. I was very happy about this because he was an incredibly smart little guy with a sweet personality. I brought my four year old son to the museum that day, and watching this boy and my son interact was really enjoyable. When my four year old had trouble keeping up with the bigger kids, this boy slowed down and held his hand, saying “It’s okay. When I was your age I thought I would never get bigger, but I did and you will too!” This is the same kid who was the first one to offer to share his water bottle with a thirsty teammate, with the explanation that they were “both sons of Adam, so it’s like we’re brothers anyway!”
Maybe some of you reading this don’t care for that last quote. But hey, the kid believes in common descent, so halfway there.
When this boy was standing next to me at an exhibit of fossils, away from the other boys, he pointed at one.
“That’s 175 million years old,” he said, proudly.
So what happened next? Check out the last installment of this series tomorrow, where I’ll tell you about the dramatic changes we saw in our campers towards the end of the camp.