Even the best science standards in US public schools can be undercut by one misguided educator on a mission.

When Charlie’s Playhouse, a company that made evolution toys and games, announced an Evolution & Art Contest that fall, Delaney was all over it. Imagine an island with a unique environment. Choose an existing animal to put on the island. Fast forward a million years or so and imagine how the animal would evolve as a result of that environment. Draw a picture of the evolved animal.

Awesome.

Soon the sketches were flying. Finally, with just days to go before the deadline, Laney showed me her entry.

“The island has purple polka-dotted trees and bushes and quiet predators,” she explained. “And the only food is hard nuts. So after a long, long time, the monkeys evolve to have purple polka dots, huge ears to hear the predators, and sharp teeth to crack the nuts.”

She might not know an allele if it jumped up and mutated all over her, but her grasp of natural selection outstrips that of most adults. And she got this grasp not through lectures but by observing the results of natural selection all around us, and caring enough to think about it.

Winning the national contest for her age group didn’t hurt that one bit. She nearly passed out in excitement. We let her teacher know about it, and he showered her with kudos, then forwarded the news to the front office.

The next week we received a call. It was Ms. Warner, an assistant administrator at the school. Becca answered. I didn’t know who she was talking to, but it was obviously good news of some sort.

Until it wasn’t.

Click the audio player above to hear WHEN SCIENCE GOES SOUTH.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.