Creationist science fair attracts atheist onlooker

ROB CALLAHAN | Updated 2/12/2013

Homeschooled K-12 students take part in their own science fair, where a scripture quote is a requirement of every project.

It's Saturday morning and I'm winding past a small cemetery off of Snelling Avenue, taking the road that snakes around Northwestern College on my way to the Home School Science Fair. I'm keeping an open mind, although the website for the Twin Cities Creation Science Association suggests that I probably shouldn't. It boasts, "Unlike Many Secular Educators We Teach The Scientific Method!" The website also seems to suggest "prayer" is a valid step in the scientific method, and that science itself can be an outreach tool for "witnessing" to non-Christians. The site also has an animated GIF on it, and I hate animated GIFs.

Given the TCCSA's online persona, I'm expecting a group of plastic-smiled cult members. That's not quite what I find. Instead, gender dynamics among the parents are what catch my attention. Bleary-eyed, slouching dads are unhappy about getting up this early on a weekend. They stand in contrast to moms whose clothes, hair and jewelry reflect an affluent suburban lifestyle. They look like parents from a Rottlund Homes commercial, not like something out of Waco, and I can discern no difference between these Christians and any other run-of-the-mill Christian family you might see coming from church on Sunday.

That said, I don't fit in with this crowd and it's only a matter of time before somebody notices. The TCCSA's website tells me that's when I'll be witnessed at, so I try to take in as much as possible before things get awkward.

I'm expecting to see a lot of ham-fisted attempts at proving the Bible's craziest claims through science. Maybe there'll be a kid tying the Drake equation to a presentation on Ezekeil's UFO. Quantum electrodynamics will make a great excuse to talk about loaves and fishes. Someone will undoubtedly believe Jesus walked on water thanks to the miracle of thixotropy. Someone else will attempt to debunk the Big Bang by asking, "Then who put the singularity there?" At some point, dinosaurs and the Ark are bound to come up. That's the sort of thing I think I'll see. Instead, what I find is mostly standard science fair stuff.

A total of 21 displays tout their young owners' varying interests in science. One requirement of the fair is the inclusion of a Bible verse in every presentation. Some kids display their chosen bit of scripture prominently while most seem to treat it as an afterthought. Very young participants may choose between "experimental" and "non-experimental" projects. The non-experimental variety are best described as enhanced book reports, while the experimental ones employ experimentation in their attempts to answer questions about why wood floats, how robots are programmed and the mystery that vexes Juggalos the world over: How magnets work.

The girl at the cranberries display is 8. Her non-experimental display is an assembly of carefully printed and decorated factoids and pictures. It explains the growing process and illustrates the bog ecosystems where cranberries thrive. She speaks confidently about the health benefits of cranberries as the judges take notes and, at the end, doesn't mention her Bible verse. It's John 15:5, or "I am the vine, ye are the branches." I wait for the judges to mention it, but their inquiries are softer than expected. They mostly ask things like, "And do you personally like cranberries?"

An excited 8-year-old boy has conducted a simple fluid motion experiment inspired by the flipper shape of humpback whales, which he proudly tells me is the Whirly-bird vs. Whaley-bird experiment. He buzzes as he recounts the steps in his experiment, but frequently interrupts himself to share cool facts about whales instead. His mother hovers nearby and, as he talks about just how awesome whales totally are, she bends down mid-sentence to wipe his face with a Wet Nap. He and I both quickly pretend that never happened and he goes on without missing a beat. He mentions God only briefly, where the rules of the science fair would seem to require it, but makes no attempt to convert me at the end. Instead, he shows me comic strips about whales and tells me which websites I can visit to learn more about his project. I silently note that the sites I recognize are secular.