Science in Christian Perspective



Russell Maatman

From: JASA 16 (September 1964): 95-96

MACTLAC is the abbreviated organizational name which has meaning for many ASA members as well as a few hundred of their midwestern teaching colleagues. The Mdwest Association of Chemistry Teachers in Liberal Arts Colleges, founded in 1952, meets annually to exchange ideas on questions which interest ASA members in colleges which are not state-supported.

One of the highlights of last fall's meeting at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, was the distribution and discussion of the report by Harry F. Lewis on chemical research in MACTLAC schools. Following are some of the data for fifty-seven liberal arts colleges in eight states. In the 1962-3 school year 69% of the chemistry department staff members (there was an average of 3.5 staff members per school) engaged in research. There was an average of 8.1 senior chemistry majors per school and an average of 5.7 students (not necessarily all seniors) engaged in research. The average school received $6,750 in research grants for this work (only nine of the fifty-seven received nothing), with the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Research Corporation the most frequent granting agencies.

For the three-year period ending with the 1962-3 academic year, there was on the average 0.61 research publication per college per year and 0.75 presentation at a scientific meeting per college per year. Five of the fifty-seven colleges were responsible for 53% of the publications, while nineteen published nothing in that period.

The data in the report show further that a larger fraction of faculty members and students participate in chemical research each year, and that this activity is significantly larger than it was a dozen years ago. There is therefore now a substantial interest in chemical research (and presumably in other scientific research as well) in just the type of college at which many ASA members are carrying out their calling to serve Christ by guiding students.

What does this growing interest in research mean for the Christian faculty member? If the trend towards more and more research continues, will it harm or hurt our work? The data given above seem to indicate that in spite of the fact that there is now appreciable research activity, this activity does not approach the point of dominating the professional Ifie of the average faculty member in these colleges. Whatever problems arise from "too much research" seem to be far off. But the expenditure of $6,750 per year per college, on projects involving almost six students and two-thirds of the chemistry staff, means something radically new is being added to our chemistry curriculum.

"Curriculum" is hardly the correct word: the varied, unpredictable, and uneven activity associated with a research project, fraught with intellectual hazards, has little resemblance to the relative regularity and safety (since someone else has worked out the problems) of conventional courses in the curriculum. One reason research can be valuable for the undergraduate is that he thereby has the experience of finding his way in uncharted territory. In a talk at the recent meeting of the Iowa Academy of Science Dr. M. Dresden, a physicist at the State University of Iowa, even argued for introducing the uncharted-territory learning situation into the terminal, general education physical science course. He contended that the science student at any level must have the lost, where-do-l-go-from-here feeling that the research scientist experiences-always provided, of course, the student is confronted with a problem appropriate to his level of development.

One may claim that research activity merely develops students into chemists earlier than would otherwise be the case. If this were the only consequence of the newer approach research activity would hardly seem to be worth the considerable effort usually attending introducing it into and maintaining it in the chemistry department program. It seems there are at least two good reasons for us to be pleased with these latest developments.

First, God does give us specific commands on what we are to do with our talents. Those who have the talents enabling them to use music to praise the Lord should do so. Those who can use science to praise him should also do so. In Genesis 1 we are told to subdue the earth; in our day subduing the earth must include scientific investigation. Almost all science faculty members have been trained at some time to carry out research. The basic or fundamental research implied in "subduing the earth" by scientific investigation is just the kind of research best adapted to the academic environment, even though mundane matters associated with condensation reactions and electromotive force measurements may superficially seem far from the divine command.

Second, faculty-student cooperative research improves the entire scientific environment in a school. Research is not merely something added, leaving the rest of the curriculum alone. In research the student learns much about a very small area of science, but because of this method of learning, he appreciates more the kind of struggling someone experienced in order that each fact he learns in any of his courses is developed to the point that it appears in the student's textbook. Both student and faculty member acquire a really lively interest in the advancing scientific front. Research brings the faculty member and the student together in a relationship enabling the faculty member to transmit his Christian faith much as he would to his own child. Finally, we must admit that encouraging research in a chemistry department makes it easier to obtain new staff members. There are very many chemists who are Christians and who can help improve the scientific environment in a school who cannot be recruited if they are not encouraged to develop their students by the research method.

The question most frequently asked about undergraduate participation in research is, "Can they do it?" There certainly was a feeling on the part of some at the MACTLAC meeting that the research approach has been unsatisfactory. It is objected that the student's efforts in research replace effort he should be making in learning more chemistry. Some feel that helping the student takes too much of the faculty member's time from the project. Others think good projects are by their nature too difficult for the inexperienced. These are not necessarily "sour grapes" comments: the objectors have seen undergraduate research in action. A refutation of these objections should not be attempted. Rather, the problems raised are the very ones which are pitfalls for those who are over-enthusiastic. The writer feels that the student's problem should be small and of such a nature that he can really understand what he is doing. He should not, at least after the first few months, be merely a pair of hands. We ought to admit there are very many problems that are simply too advanced for this group. Time spent on the project should be time he would ordinarily not spend in study; this implies some kind of fellowship or assistantship.

Perhaps it is not unreasonable to expect that if there are undergraduates with dramatic, athletic, or musical talents exceptional enough to warrant public exhibition, that there are also undergraduates with original thinking skills which can be developed enough to make it possible for these students to present original papers at some of the smaller scientific meetings. Recently the writer attended the South Dakota Academy of Science where, in the collegiate section, twenty-six undergradute papers were given. Here was proof of the major point of this essay. Some first-class original thinking abilities were displayed. Small schools, without unusual facilities or support, and with average incoming students, evidently were successful in using this approach to teaching in chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics.

One of these twenty-six students knew absolutely nothing of research at the beginning of the academic year, and yet this student accomplished a creditable piece of work. This student remarked privately that the research experience meant more than any course laboratory work. A revealing additional comment was, "One difference is that in the research lab the experiment must be repeated until you're sure you're right" Each reader will want to draw from that remark his own conclusion.