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Does science leave room for free will? High school debaters have some ideas.

More than 9,000 students, coaches, and parents converged in Birmingham, Ala., the last week of June for the National Speech and Debate Association’s national tournament. On Friday afternoon, in one of the tournament’s climactic events, high school students from South Dakota and Missouri faced off in the 1,000-seat BJCC Theatre to debate whether science leaves room for free will. It was a profound enough topic on its own, but the event was also noteworthy as the national championship debut of a new kind of high school debate, centered on the “Big Questions.”

More than 150,000 high school students from 3,200 schools participate in debate programs affiliated with the NSDA. High school debate comes in many forms: Lincoln-Douglas is probably the best known format, but the NSDA administers debates in more than a half-dozen varieties. Aided by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the NSDA has just completed the first year of a three-year project to introduce a new “Big Questions” format. It gives thousands of high school debaters and coaches the tools and motivation to delve into topics that reach further than the domestic and foreign policy issues that frame much competitive debate.

For the 2016-2017 inaugural Big Questions competition, students prepared responses to a blunt assertion: “Resolved: science leaves no room for free will.” As they advanced through the competition, students had to be prepared to argue both sides of the resolution. In the final debate, Rebecca Roy of Watertown, S.D., took the assigned hard line against free will. She cited scientific studies on conditioning, reinforcement, dopamine-induced motivation, and selective memory to argue that our intuitive sense of free choice doesn’t stand up to experimental scrutiny.

Countering her was Xavier Lewis of Lee’s Summit, Mo., who framed a broader argument rooted in philosophical definitions and the nature of science. Behavioral conditioning and the power of dopamine might strongly influence some choices, he said, but were too narrow a sampling to rule out free will. He leaned heavily on the discipline of computational linguistics, suggesting that human language exhibits degrees of variable complexity and ability that cannot plausibly be explained in terms of conditioned response.

The debate was broken into multi-minute chunks — constructive statements, rebuttals, consolidations and rationales, with a pair of three-minute sessions midway through in which the opponents politely peppered one another with questions. At several points during the debate, audience members were asked their own questions, in the the form of text-message-based polling, to gauge their shifting attitudes towards the topic.

Lewis was named the winner of the debate — and a $10,000 college scholarship — at the tournament’s culminating awards ceremony. Roy received a $5,000 second-place scholarship, while 3rd and 4th place winners Aidan Fitzgerald and Anna Newell received $2,500 each. But everyone won a chance to apply the skills and methods of debate to some of the most important questions human beings can ask. Later this year students will begin researching and debating a new Big Questions topic: “Resolved: humans are fundamentally different from all other animals.”

A year from now, two students will take the stage in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to make their best case for or against the proposition.