Teen receives award for fight against La. science act
What Zack Kopplin remembers most about the Playboy Mansion is the wildlife.
That’s one word — wildlife — not two.
Upon driving through the compound’s gates in early June, Kopplin saw a sign that cautioned drivers to be alert for “Playmates at play,” then was stunned to see a “beautiful albino peacock sitting in a tree.” More exotic animals — flamingos, monkeys and assorted wild birds — were scattered throughout the property.
“That’s the thing that’s most striking,” said Kopplin, an 18-year-old political activist who just completed his freshman year at Rice University in Houston. “It’s not that it’s Playmate land, it’s that it’s this incredible zoo.”
He received his invitation to the famous (or infamous) mansion to receive a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award citing Kopplin’s campaign to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which opponents say promotes the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public school science classes by promoting the introduction of alternative texts on evolution.
He led rallies, appeared before committees and was interviewed for radio and cable news shows. Dozens of Nobel prize winners wrote to the state Legislature in support of the cause, and thousands of supporters signed an online petition to repeal the act.
First notified by email about the Hefner award during spring break, Kopplin was not convinced. He had never heard of it.
“When I found out about it, I thought it might be an elaborately planned prank,” said Kopplin, a slightly built blond who speaks energetically, leaning forward in his chair. “I didn’t realize it was real.”
During the morning reception and award ceremony at the mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., Kopplin met Playboy founder Hugh Hefner only briefly. The 86-year-old posed for a group picture and then returned to his bedroom. Kopplin was much more excited about meeting Hefner’s daughter, Christie Hefner, an active participant in progressive politics who established the First Amendment award in 1979.
In the hour before the ceremony, Kopplin spent time with the five other award recipients — government whistle-blowers, authors and civil rights leaders, one of whom faced federal espionage charges for speaking out. Meeting with people who had sacrificed for their causes left him “with a different outlook on life,” he said.
On their way home from Los Angeles, Kopplin and Ben Simpson — a friend since kindergarten and a classmate at Rice — began to plan their next step, an advocacy organization called Students for the Advancement of Science. They plan to help science gain a “more political voice,” said 19-year-old Simpson, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major.
They are starting with social media, reaching interested students across the country with a Facebook page and encouraging them to start chapters of the group at high school and college campuses. They have hopes of eventually improving state and federal funding for scientific organizations across the country.
Two years ago, when Kopplin began his crusade against the state’s science act at age 16, he did not realize how difficult the fight would become.
“I never realized what I was getting myself into and what it meant,” he said. “It was common sense to me. It was right and it was irritating that we haven’t done anything about this.”
Kopplin’s campaign began as a senior project while at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. The son of Andy Kopplin, a former chief of staff to two governors and currently deputy mayor and chief administrative officer to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Zack Kopplin has grown up in a civic-minded and political family.
Since 2008 when the act first passed, Kopplin had been concerned with the effect it may have on the state’s students, but he decided to make it his project in 2010 as his senior year approached. Although he excelled in upper level science courses, according to Simpson, Kopplin did not plan on becoming a scientist.
One of his first acts was to email Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University who has written extensively and testified about the intelligent design and creationist movement. Forrest, who raised two sons and says she knows what a teen likes to eat, invited him over for hamburgers and brownies to give him advice and help organize his campaign. They started by neatly filtering the emails he was receiving in support of his campaign into separate folders.
To have any hope of making a difference, she knew they needed widely respected scientists to support their cause. She suggested Kopplin try to contact Harold Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner and professor of chemistry at Florida State University.
Kroto and dozens of other Nobel Prize-winning scientists wrote in support of the effort, and 70,000 people signed an online petition at Change.org.
“He will not take no for an answer. I learned then that Zack will ask anybody anything,” Forrest said. “Once he knows where to go, he goes.”
Friends in high school saw Kopplin as a normal, intelligent student and teenager, Simpson said, but the campaign revealed another side of him.
“This kind of brought him out,” Simpson said. “He was more soft spoken. He’s always had opinions, but this brought him out.”
Kopplin said he believes the campaign’s relative success partially stems from his age and persona. Science advocates saw a young student seeking input into his education.
“It’s counter-intuitive,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, but it’s my education and adults actually care when students get involved.”
In April 2011, state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson introduced Senate Bill 70 to repeal the Science Education Act. The bill did not make it out of the Senate’s Education Committee as members voted six to one to defer the bill, essentially passing over it, Forrest said. This year members of the committee voted two to one against the bill as four members chose not to vote after forming a quorum of seven. Kopplin sees the legislators’ abstentions as a small victory.
“We got killed again this year, but that wasn’t at all surprising given our result last year,” Kopplin said. “But this year showed we have obvious momentum because we were killed five to one last year, and we scared off four votes between last year and this year and we lost two to one. ... If half the senators on the committee didn’t want to oppose us, then we’re making huge progress.”
He vows to keep fighting until the act is repealed. Forrest said Kopplin’s optimistic view serves him well in this uphill battle, but he has had to adapt his expectations.
“He’s by nature a very optimistic and idealistic person,” Forrest said. “I think he’s learned in Louisiana you have to temper that idealism with realism.”
Last month Kopplin completed his freshman year at Rice University in Houston, where he majors in history and Asian studies.
Kopplin expects the Texas Legislature to attempt to pass its own creationism act next year, which puts him in a position to extend his campaign there.
“We’re hopeful for next year,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. We just keep gathering momentum. Right now I’m looking to get this bigger than Louisiana.”
This summer Kopplin plans to work for the Democratic Party, possibly on a campaign in Florida. He enjoys working on such political advocacy campaigns as Repeal Creationism, and he foresees a possible career leading such actions.
Forrest sees Kopplin as one of the top products of the Louisiana school system, a bellwether of youth achievement. She said she hopes he is able to keep his drive and enthusiasm as he continues on his political career.
“I hope he retains his energy and commitment,” Forrest said. “I hope he serves as a symbol of what the adults in Louisiana should have done.”