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Science fair project booted


A father says a school district owes his daughter an apology and a science fair certificate, and he's enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union to help.

David Thielen's 8-year-old daughter spent 20 hours on a project about racial preferences. The girl's principal threw it out after one hour on display at Mesa Elementary School's science fair Feb. 1.

"She goes to school for eight hours a day," said Thielen, who asked that his daughter's name not be used. "At the moment, she goes in every day thinking what she did was wrong and bad."

The girl's experiment asked adults and Mesa fifth-graders to pick a "prettier" doll from black and white Barbies wearing different dresses. Adults chose mostly on dress color and style, but the children - 24 out of 30, including all of one fifth-grade classroom - went with the white doll.

Boulder Valley School Board chairman Stan Garnett conceded teachers probably weren't anticipating a social science experiment this sophisticated from a third-grader.

"I feel a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Thielen's daughter and for the teachers who made a judgment call they thought was best at the time," Garnett said. "Unfortunately, people involved in public education have to make judgment calls that get blasted by the community if, in hindsight, it looks like it wasn't the best one to make."

Garnett said the school board told Superintendent George Garcia to review the district's policies on free speech, diversity and science fairs, and make recommendations. "It may be a situation that educates," Garnett said.

The girl's experiment, coincidentally, mimics one central to the case that ended public school segregation in 1954. Testifying for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, sociologist Kenneth Clark used white and black girls' doll preferences to demonstrate the damage segregation caused at a young age. The U.S. Supreme Court cited the effects, among them a negative self-image in black children, in its decision.

Thielen said his daughter didn't know that until after the science fair.

"What this really showed is a ton of white kids in an almost all-white neighborhood picked the Barbie that was white," Thielen said.

He said his daughter's teachers were aware of what she was working on before the science fair, but removed it because they worried "that minority children would look at it as the white doll 'won.' "

The girl's grades are not affected by the action. But she has yet to receive her science fair certificate, and she still wants it, Thielen said.

"We'd like an apology," Thielen said. "And the thing we view as really, really important is when the discussion of race comes up spontaneously, that it be used as a teachable moment rather than tell kids not to talk about it."

(Contact Owen S. Good of the Denver Rocky Mountain News at

February 28, 2001

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