The Christian Academy Science Fair winners have been announced. Now most of the projects and awards sound like typical middle school science fair fare:

Lake Algae: How Best to Chemically Remove It.
What Is the Best Electroplating Material?
Does Calcium in Milk Strengthen Bones?
How Do Fears Change with Age?
Can We Build an Environmentally Friendly Electric Generator?
Can a Polarized Lens Affect a Digital Photograph?

Heck, my own 6th grader did his project this year on how fat content effects the melting rate of ice cream. And just a helpful hint… on a scorcher of a day, treat yourself to top quality heart-stopping artery-clogging ice cream to allow yourself the best opportunity for a drip free cone.

However, the science teachers at The Christian Science Academy should be taken out and flogged for not only allowing young Brian Benson to pursue his misguided project, but for then giving him First Place in the Life Sciences category.

Brian Benson, an eighth-grade student who won first place in the Life Science/Biology category for his project “Creation Wins!!!,” says he disproved part of the theory of evolution. Using a rolled-up paper towel suspended between two glasses of water with Epsom Salts, the paper towel formed stalactites. He states that the theory that they take millions of years to develop is incorrect.

“Scientists say it takes millions of years to form stalactites,” Benson said. “However, in only a couple of hours, I have formed stalactites just by using paper towel and Epsom Salts.”

The faults with this project are almost too numerous to mention. Let’s start with the fact that he won for Life Sciences despite his project having absolutely no biology content. Maybe then we could talk about the fact that evolution says absolutely nothing about stalactite formations (or anything else about geology for that matter).

But we’ll give the poor boy the benefit of the doubt and assume that what he was really trying to do was prove that the Earth was only a few thousand rather than a few billion years old. And we’ll ignore that even at the middle school level, students are expected to have their purpose, experiments, and conclusions at least all on the same topic for an acceptable (much less a winning) project.

Still, Epson salts are made of magnesium sulfate. Stalactites are made of calcium carbonate. There’s no reason the growth rate between these two substances should be the same. It would be like assuming that since I can bake a cake in 20 minutes that this should be ample roasting time for my holiday turkey.

And even then, the boy’s assertion about “millions of years” of growth are wrong. I would be very surprised if he got more than a couple inches of “stalactite” growth from his salts in a few hours. Let’s assume 2 inches. Stalactite growth is anywhere from 0.1cm/thousand years to much higher rates depending on conditions (acidity, moisture, etc.) Even at slow growth rates, this gets us a 2″ stalactite in hundreds of thousands of years, not millions. So his comparison numbers aren’t even in the right order of magnitude.

The point of a science fair is to encourage students to use the scientific process. It rarely results in original findings and often the topics are downright trite. But the key is whether or not the students were able to pose a question or a problem and then determine an answer using the proper method. This boy’s work fails miserably on those goals. It is nothing short of disingenuous for the faculty to have encouraged much less rewarded that behavior.

I’m sure young Brian was just picking up on the fairly common claim by creationists that the rapid growth of stalactites proves that the Earth could be much younger than scientists claim. And under the right circumstances, stalactite growth can be fairly quick (on a geologic time scale). But the claim that this proves the Earth is young is faulty logic. Under the right circumstances (four-leaf clover in both pockets, blue moon, lucky underpants on) I can sink a half-court shot with nothin’-but-net. That’s certainly no reason to expect that to be a typical outcome.

Creationists are free to believe what they will. Science is in no danger of being debunked by them. But by training children in this illogical approach to analysis are we raising a generation of kids doomed to be Enron accountants, Justice Department attorneys, and media spin doctors?? Kids who are predisposed to let the desired outcome drive the facts? Critical thinking and analysis skills are vital to many, if not most occupations. They are also pretty important in your personal life for things like making sound financial decisions and… well… voting. These skills are not limited to the realm of science. But they are learned in school under the banner of science.

If your school’s science curriculum is teaching your child that this crap passes for good science. Then I hope the English curriculum is teaching them to say clearly over a cheap loudspeaker, “You want fries with that?”

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