Science Course Description
Imposing Science on the Liberal Arts Student
Karl Giberson and Kathy Frederich
Eastern Nazarene College
23 East Elm Avenue
Quincy, MA 02170
From PSCF 48 (June 1996): 108 - 116.
The discussion of scientific ideas at Christian colleges is complicated because of the controversial role that science plays in contemporary evangelical discourse and the widespread assumption of the historical conflict model of interaction. This article describes a general education history of science course taken by all undergraduates at Eastern Nazarene College, a liberal arts college in the Boston area. In this course, entitled "Epoch Making Events in Science," students are exposed to a variety of scientific ideas presented in their historical context. The historical format is helpful because it facilitates comparison of present and past conflicts and provides a much more natural context for the presentation of many important, although controversial, contemporary ideas such as evolution, genetics, and Big Bang cosmology. A survey of student attitudes at the beginning and end of the course indicates that the course has helped some students move beyond the simple conflict metaphor into a more mature integrated view of the interaction between science and religion.
One of the greatest pedagogical challenges facing the evangelical Christian college is the teaching of science. As the source of much confusion and even friction within the church, science is viewed with suspicion by many evangelicals. The problem is exacerbated by an accelerating national science illiteracy and certain prominent theological traditions (eg. Barthian neo-orthodoxy) that consider science irrelevant to the Christian faith.
Major Christian booksellers (InterVarsity, Eerdmans, Zondervan) carry very few titles in the field of science and religion. Those publishers that do have an interest in books in this area tend to be dominated by the scientific creationist perspective. Nevertheless, it is increasingly important that Christian colleges educate their students about science. The credibility of the gospel in the coming millennium demands that its message be found among the scientific leadership and the scientifically literate. The day is coming when a theology that is not in dialog with science will find itself with no one to talk to.
This article will describe a science course taught at Eastern Nazarene College designed to provide the Christian liberal arts student with some perspectives on science, its historical development and cultural influence, and its relationship to the Christian faith. The course is titled "Epoch Making Events in Science" and is a part of the General Education program that consists of eight integrated courses taken by all students and collectively labeled "Cultural Perspectives." In the order that they are taken by a typical student, the eight required courses are: "Biblical History and Literature," "Western Heritage," "World Literature," "Arts & Music," "The Philosophical Quest," "Christian Tradition," "Epoch Making Events in Science," and "Living Issues." Each course is taught within a historical framework and is designed so that the students can see the interconnections among the different fields. The final course in the series, "Living Issues," is a capstone that attempts to "bring it all together" by focusing on issues that confront the contemporary Christian - bioethics, racism, homosexuality, civil disobedience, world hunger, pornography and art, etc. The students also take a variety of distribution options - lab science, math, language, social science, etc.
Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) is one of eight colleges sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan denomination with about one million members in the United States. The relatively large number of sponsored colleges reflects the denomination's historically strong interest in education, an outgrowth of the social commitments of its founders.
The General Education program at ENC is designed to complement the individual student's major in meeting the educational mission of the college:
...to provide the resources for a liberal arts education and life-long learning in an environment which awakens and fosters truth, righteousness, justice, and holiness as they reflect the life which has been transformed by God's grace through Jesus Christ. We seek to serve the Church by equipping people for Christian leadership and service to humankind. ...The entire education program encourages each person to become a creative and redemptive force in the world through integration of the richness of the Christian tradition and the human quest for understanding.
Despite the college's denominational affiliation, about half of the undergraduates at ENC are not members of the sponsoring church, with Roman Catholic being the next largest constituency. And even those that are members of the Nazarene church bring a variety of theological perspectives, ranging from conservative to liberal. (See Fig. 1 for student population demographics.) In recent years, many members of the church - which is strongest in the Midwest - have begun to embrace biblical literalism, a source of great concern on the college campuses, particularly for those who teach science.
While there are a variety of perspectives found among the students, many of those who have been raised in the church have become a little distrustful of science. Many, if not most, of the few who have attended private Christian high schools are openly antagonistic toward contemporary science. This distrust, coupled with the general level of scientific illiteracy among the students of today, makes it quite difficult to provide the kinds of educational experiences with science that we would like our students to have. Often we find ourselves faced with students who, besides being abysmally ignorant of science, are openly hostile to much of it. (See Fig. 2 for assessment of scientific literacy.)
"Epoch Making Events in Science," or "EMES" as it is affectionately known, is taken by students in their junior year. The course provides an opportunity for students to reflect on the important role that science has played in the formation of the modern world and in the formation of their personal world view. It is an important goal of the course to make the students more open to contemporary theories of origins (Big Bang, evolution) and to integrate those ideas into their religious views. Toward this end, the course provides a historical framework for the science/religion controversy, emphasizing the Galileo Affair as a useful point of contact. (See Fig. 3 for course outline.) Because EMES contains many different topics, we have found it useful to emphasize a few recurring themes. These are: (1) the birth of science in the pre-Socratics' interest in the basic stuff of the world and how the stuff changes, and how those two questions have retained their centrality throughout the history of science; (2) the profound interaction between science and the world view of each generation; (3) the religious implications of scientific ideas.
The course begins with a general discussion of the nature of science. The hypothetico-deductive scientific method is discussed (see Fig. 4) and the students are invited to apply it to a staged incident. One year, for example, a faculty member sitting in the audience began to interrupt and make rude remarks while the lecturer was speaking. The disruptive behavior got excessive—"way out of hand"—and the class was dismissed for ten minutes while the faculty members ostensibly resolved their differences. When the class returned, they were instructed to try and figure out what was going on. Initial discussion helped the students distinguish between observation (Professor X interrupted Professor Y) and inference (X was rude to Y). The difficulty of separating observation and inference helps the students understand that all data are, to some degree, theory laden. The triangle scheme in Fig. 4 serves as the framework for much of the discussion. After the problem has been described as objectively as possible, the students are invited to develop testable hypotheses to try and figure out why X behaved so rudely to Y. (Hypothesis one—X, who is a physicist, dislikes Y, a chemist. We can test this by inviting another chemist to engage X and see if X continues to be rude. Failing this, hypothesis two—X dislikes people who wear suits. We can test this by engaging X and another person in a suit, etc.). The essential testability of scientific ideas is repeatedly emphasized, initially in this exercise and throughout the course.
Once the general nature of science has been discussed and its important role in the modern western world made clear, the course proceeds to a series of historically-based lectures on the development of science, using cosmology as the focus. Topics include: (1) the origin of science in pre-Socratic Greece; (2) the Plato/Aristotle divergence; (3) the Aristotelian scheme; (4) the languishing of science during the early middle ages; (5) the rediscovery of Greek science and Aquinas' synthesis; (6) the scientific revolution, with emphasis on Galileo and the various interests that combined to create that colorful, but tragic, affair; (7) the Newtonian world view as the replacement for the now defunct Aristotelian view; (8) Einstein's special relativity as the disintegration of the Newtonian scheme; (9) General Relativity and the gradual ascendance of the Big Bang; (10) the union of particle physics and cosmology in "Theories of Everything."
The cosmology lectures are followed by a brief discussion of the remarkable fine tuning of the universe for life as we know it. We mention the viability of viewing cosmic evolution as the creative work of God (à la the Anthropic Principle), with cautions about entangling scientific and theological ideas.
The third major component of the course is a discussion of the origin of the modern concept of matter. This is done in a straightforward way describing the origins of chemistry in alchemy, the development of the periodic table, and the modern quantum theory of matter. Since this portion of the course is review for many science majors, considerable attention is given to the history of the ideas to maintain their interest in the material. At the end of the discussion of matter, the topic of reductionism or scientific materialism is used to help the students see the significant but subtle issues raised by these scientific developments.
Biological theories of evolution and genetics comprise the final major component of the course. Evolution is treated first historically, emphasizing that Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection to explain some observations, not to discredit traditional religious views. Next we present the confused state of contemporary evolutionary theory, presenting some major challenges to the traditional understanding of the theory. The sequencing of the fossil record is presented as evidence for evolution; the gaps in the sequence are presented as problems. Throughout the discussion attention is focussed on the difference between observation and theory, between facts and explanation. We have elected not to focus on the "two models" approach to origins at this point (creation/evolution) because we do not feel that scientific creationism provides a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution. We do, however, make it clear that philosophical bias can play an important role in both evolution and creationist perspectives. Toward this end, we show Phillip Johnson's video on the Blind Watchmaker and have the students read the essay that goes along with it. (We have some reservations about this because of Johnson's affinity for scientific creationism.)
Then we consider genetics. One lecture is devoted to its history beginning with Mendel and ending with a general explanation of genetic engineering and the Human Genome project. This section of the course emphasizes the inability of science to resolve the moral dilemmas that it creates. Students are led in discussions focussing on how these developments affect our philosophical views of man, God, and the value of life; and case studies are used to work through the ethical decisions involved with genetic screening, in vitro fertilization, and abortion.
This sequence—cosmology, nature of matter, biology—preserves the rough historical outline of their development. We have found it helpful to keep disciplinary topics together although it interrupts the pure historical sequencing of the course. Therefore, relativity is discussed before evolution so that it can follow on the heels of Newton, thus maintaining that historical continuity.
Besides the broad lecture series outlined above, EMES also includes a variety of topics covered by guest lecturers. One popular topic is a presentation of the Near Eastern cosmological model that forms the framework for the Genesis account. We find it particularly useful to make the students aware of the way that the writer of Genesis incorporated elements of the prevailing cosmology (firmament, for example) in his account. When the students realize this (many refuse to do so!), it helps them focus on the theological aspects of the account and not be distracted by the apparently scientific aspects of the account. Another popular topic is the tendency for philosophical movements to use science as a part of their foundation—determinism, materialism, relativism—as well as ideas like capitalism, Nazism, and communism that claim support from evolutionary biology.
The students also explore some of these ideas in a series of small group discussions, led by the better students and overseen by the faculty. These discussion groups are begun before the topic of evolution is considered formally in a lecture, since this is the most difficult part of the course for our students to interact with spiritually. In these groups the students are provided with a series of discussion questions that go with the text. The first session asks students to identify the voices of authority that have shaped their world view and gets them to begin thinking about how world views can change and how to resolve internal conflicts within a world view. The second session deals with inspiration and interpretation of Scripture and focuses on the purpose and style of Genesis 1. The third session reviews evolutionism and scientific creationism, and asks students to distinguish between fact and faith in the various positions regarding origins, highlighting the idea that both are sources of truth. The student questions ask them to explore their religious background and see if it can be integrated with the material that they are studying in class. For texts, we have used Worlds Apart: The Unholy War between Religion and Science written by Karl Giberson, Charles Hummel's The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible and Richard Wright's Biology Through the Eyes of Faith.
There are three hands-on activities in EMES, all of which are immensely popular with the students (perhaps because they interrupt the series of lectures; or maybe because they use no math). They are: (1) the Black Box (Fig. 5) in which students are given a large black box that makes a pounding noise when shaken. The assignment is to formulate testable hypotheses about the internal structure of the box that will account for the observations. (2) Tinker Toy Time (Fig. 6) in which students construct molecular models of the chemicals involved in the primordial soup and then try to find an energetically efficient chemical pathway to an amino acid. This activity helps the student see that chemical origin-of-life scenarios are speculative but that science can realistically study the plausibility of such scenarios. (3) Blockhead (Fig. 7) in which students are given nine blocks and told that one is missing and they must identify its characteristics by properly organizing the nine available blocks. Once the nine blocks are organized, a variety of patterns become apparent and the properties of the missing block are readily predicted from the patterns. One of the several patterns admits of more than one solution, thus allowing the students to experience the very real frustration common to scientists who venture down attractive "blind alleys." The Blockhead activity is an example of the kind of reasoning used by Mendeleev as he predicted missing elements on the periodic table and Murray Gellman as he predicted the existence of certain elementary particles.
There are several major challenges—both practical and theoretical—to teaching a course such as EMES. On the practical side, the team teaching format is very difficult to manage. With so many different lecturers, the students never really get "in the groove." Though the course has always had a single director, it has never been possible to instill a single vision in the various instructors. Some lecturers feel that the students need to know more science and thus include material solely for the sake of science literacy; other instructors feel that the integration of science and faith is all that matters and include no more science than is necessary to accomplish that goal. A format with a single instructor, which we have also used, provides more coherence but sacrifices the broad based expertise that is helpful in an interdisciplinary course of this nature. In conversations with students, it has also been our impression that students in different majors were pleased to discover that one of "their" professors had something to contribute to this course. One strategy that we are attempting for maintaining coherence despite the diversity of lecturers is to have an elaborate study guide produced for the students, in which each lecturer's material is summarized in a similar format.
Another ongoing source of concern has been textbooks. It has never been possible for us to find a single text which would meet even a significant portion of the need. So we have been forced to rely on a variety of texts, including one produced "in-house" by several instructors. There are a few (precious few) good history of science texts on the market but it is hard to get general agreement on a single text when it has to be used by so many separate instructors. ("Galileo is presented from a biased perspective." "There is not enough chemistry." "Quantum theory with no math?") Most history of science texts, for example, contain little or no discussion of the important role that religion has played in the lives of most of the major figures of the scientific revolution. There are, however, some excellent texts that cover portions of the course material. Timothy Ferris' Coming of Age in the Milky Way does a superb job with the history of cosmology and is written in a style that humanities students appreciate; Miller and von Loon's Darwin for Beginners does an excellent job of presenting the philosophical and scientific origins of evolution (although the irreverent cartoon format of the book may offend the sensibilities of some readers). We currently use Hazen and Trefil's Science Matters: Achieving Science Literacy as background reading for students with poor high school science backgrounds. Most students like this book and consider it quite helpful; we find this alarming since it is written at a junior high school general science level.
Is "Epoch Making Events in Science" a success? Course evaluations show that the general student response is positive, although there is certainly a contingent of nay sayers. Better science majors find the course too easy (even though they don't make A's!); some dogmatic conservative students question the "orthodoxy" of some course content; and many students complain that they don't need to know "all this stuff." But many students are quite excited by the class. Some students bring a strong "Science vs. Religion" interest to the class and, once it becomes apparent that the instructors are not dogmatic about their positions, these students begin to reflect in a more mature way on their world view. Most science majors find the historical discussions to be nicely complementary to their studies in their major, and humanities majors appreciate the discussion of the human side of science. The course is very eclectic and everybody finds something to like (and to dislike!).
We have attempted to assess student opinions regarding origins questions at the beginning and end of the course using an anonymous matched pair survey. A series of statements regarding the origin of life, the early chapters of Genesis, the time course of creation, and human origins were presented to the group of students characterized in Figs. 1 and 2. Students were asked to choose one of five options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. Following these, two multiple choice questions asked the student to choose a view regarding the inspiration of Scripture and a position for relating science and the Bible.
This survey pointed out that there was a great deal of change occurring in students' thinking during the course and they are clearly engaged in trying to process these questions. It also showed that although movement on these issues was occurring in both directions (toward a creation science position and toward a naturalist position), in some cases it seemed that there were trends in our population. Regarding the early chapters of Genesis, there was a trend away from agreement with the statements, "God created the universe as we know it in six 24-hour days" and "The early chapters of Genesis are based on myths." There was an increase in the number of students, who at the end of the course agreed with the statement, "The early chapters of Genesis have a theological meaning only." Concerning human origins, there was a trend away from agreement with the statements, "Humans originated from animal ancestors by chance naturalistic processes" and "Humans originated when God created Adam from the dust." There was also an increase in the number of students who at the end of the course agreed with the statements, "God created the universe as we know it through evolutionary processes that took millions/billions of years" and "Humans originated from animal ancestors by evolutionary processes that were directed by God." Finally, the students moved away from a strict inerrancy position which claims that the Bible is scientifically accurate and toward a complementary view of relating science and Scripture. We are encouraged by these data because the course enables some students to abandon dogmatic positions at the extremes in favor of a more mature world view that allows for some tension.
For other students, however, making such a transition is extremely threatening. One serious issue with which we constantly seem to struggle is the extent to which students' religious assumptions should be challenged in a course of this sort. As the readers of this journal are very aware, there are millions of Christians who passionately believe that there are no factual errors of any kind in the Bible, scientific or otherwise, and it is unsettling to them to hear lectures on how Genesis is based on Near Eastern cosmologies, or that human beings were not created from literal dust, or that the universe originated billions of years ago in a Big Bang. Some of our students are appalled at what they hear in our classroom and "came to a Christian college so they wouldn't have to hear that kind of stuff." While we firmly believe that Christian liberal arts students need to understand modern science, the destruction of their faith is too great a price to pay for that enlightenment. But there is an alarming (and widening) intellectual gulf between conservative Christianity and the broader intellectual community and the Christian college cannot sit idly by while the Church loses touch with contemporary science and wanders aimlessly back into the Dark Ages.
In spite of the concerns expressed above, we do feel that a course such as EMES is an excellent place to begin the "opening of the student mind." One of the advantages of discussing controversial scientific ideas in a course like EMES, rather than a course in say "Science and Christian Faith," or "Origins" is that science can be presented as a united enterprise. The students are much more receptive to the Big Bang Theory when it is presented in the development of cosmology rather than in its confrontation with religious theories of origins. Similarly, when evolution is presented in the context of a developing awareness of a changing and ancient earth, it seems less demonic. An unfortunate feature of the creation/evolution debate is that evolution and the Big Bang are often presented by the scientific creationists as if they originated in a conspiracy of secular humanism, rather than the more noble pursuit of truth about the natural world. When controversial ideas are discussed in the context of the whole of science, including a history which most students find interesting, the controversial ideas seem more benign.
We believe that "Epoch Making Events in Science" is a valuable component in the education of a liberal arts student. The history of science is becoming recognized as an important component in the canon of the Liberal Arts, and modern Christians need to come to grips with science and the perspectives that it is providing on the creation.
Back to Top