Teaching Science to Christian Liberal Arts Students: A Case Study
By Forrest M. Mims III
One of the ironies of contemporary American culture is the decline in science
aptitude that has accompanied significant advances in technology. In 1969, the
United States landed the first men on the moon. Yet in a 1995 survey sponsored
by the National Science Foundation, only 47 percent of respondents indicated
they knew that the earth revolves around the sun once each year (Jon D.
Miller, The measurement of civic scientific literacy, Public
Understand. Sci. 7, 203-223, 1998).
Various other surveys have shown that significant numbers of people read and
believe in daily horoscopes and participate or believe in various occult
practices. One of the most popular national radio talk shows in the United
States consistently features guests who discuss UFOs, ghosts, the paranormal,
reincarnation, alien abductions, conspiracy theories and other related topics.
Guests include time travelers, psychics and "remote viewers." The idea that the
government is using aircraft to spray us with chemicals or to alter the climate
can be found all over the world wide web. Just enter "chemtrails" in a search
engine to join this latest pseudoscientific nonsense. You'll find thousands of
photographs of ordinary aircraft condensation trails (contrails) that are
claimed to be malevolent chemtrails.
Science is not the only category of scholarship that has declined in
America. In 2002, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) commissioned Zogby
International to conduct a general knowledge survey of 401 seniors at both
private and public colleges and universities (Zogby International, "Survey Of College Seniors," 26 April 2002). The students
were asked basic questions virtually identical to those asked by The Gallup
Organization in 1955. The questions were drawn from literature, music, science,
geography, and history. The result is an appalling commentary on the dismal
status of general knowledge in the United States. As concluded by the NAS,
"Contemporary college seniors scored on average little or no higher than the
high-school graduates of a half-century ago on a battery of 15 questions
assessing general cultural knowledge" (National Association of Scholars,
"Today's College Students Barely More Knowledgeable than High
School Students of 50 Years Ago, Poll Shows," 18 December 2002).
In 1999 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned the
Roper organization to survey college seniors from the top 55 liberal arts and
research colleges and universities identified by U.S. News & World Reports
magazine (Anne D. Neal, Jerry L. Martin and Mashad Moses, "Losing America's Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st
Century," American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 21 February 2000). The
study found that 81 percent of seniors from these colleges failed a high school
level history exam. And why not? Only a fourth of the colleges and universities
in the survey required courses in history. While only 23 percent of the
students correctly identified James Madison as the father of the United States
Constitution, 99 percent correctly identified the cartoon characters Beavis and
Butthead, and 98 percent identified rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg.
One way to better understand the depth of the problem is to ponder some
actual test questions such as these:
1. Distinguish between the following:
(a) Latitude and longitude
(b) Equator and ecliptic
(c) Rotation and revolution
2. Why are the days and nights always equal at the equator?
3. Account for the succession of the seasons.
These questions are from the British Columbia High School Entrance Exam of
1890 (Patrick A. Dunae, Ed., Lessons from the Past). Students were required to be at least 12
years old prior to taking the test. Note that the questions require written
answers, not checking off multiple choices. Can a typical eighth grade student
of today answer these questions? A high school graduate? A university
Many commentators and organizations have observed that the decline of
American general knowledge has paralleled enormous increases in public and
private spending for education. Various accreditation schemes are supposed to
assure students, parents, donors, taxpayers and future employers that
educational institutions are properly equipped and maintained and staffed by
fully qualified educators. Yet the end results show that something is very
In spite of the pervasiveness of the problem, sprinkled across the country
are secondary and undergraduate institutions that provide a balanced education
in the humanities, the arts and the sciences. Among them is the University of
the Nations (UofN), a nondenominational Christian school with branches in some
90 countries. Contemporary universities have become big businesses where
students are often viewed more as anonymous, paying customers than as scholars.
UofN has reversed this contemporary trend with its own unique approach to
higher education. UofN ignores such traditional expectations as accreditation,
which fails to guarantee a quality education anyway. UofN does not seek or
accept government funding. Nor does UofN abide by traditional college
schedules. Instead, UofN courses are offered during sessions lasting three
months throughout the year. Students take one course during each session.
Undergraduate courses at major universities are often taught by a teaching
assistant in an auditorium seating hundreds of students. At many research
universities, professors may never enter a classroom. Their only contact with
students may be when they hire them as assistants. The University of the
Nations has a better way. Classes are small. Teachers are professional
scholars, scientists, writers, engineers and ministers with an enormous range
of life experience. They often join students for lunch and supper.
I have participated in the unique University of the Nations academic model
since 1992 by teaching a science segment in a course offered by the College of
Humanities & International Studies. The course is called Humanities &
Science: A Christian Perspective. The objective of the course is to give
Christian students a biblical world view. During the three month course,
students attend weekday lectures each morning and afternoon. Staff professors
and visiting guest teachers provide intensive instruction in philosophy,
literature, science, government, international relations, church history,
comparative religion, missions, the arts and history.
The course was developed by Dr. Douglas Feaver, a linguist and classical
historian who described his inspiration in an interview: "Truth is the area of
study for theology, philosophy and science; justice is the object of studies in
law, politics and economics; beauty is the concern of music, art and
literature, for example. I could suddenly see that the various disciplines of
the humanities were related to one another through the character of God" (Lisa
Orvis, Renewing the Mind 101, Online, 2001).
Dr. Feaver designed the science element of the course while working closely
with Dr. Howard Malmstadt, the co-founder and Provost of University of the
Nations, and Dr. Derek Chignell, who headed the chemistry department at Wheaton
College for 20 years.
Dr. Malmstadt, who passed away in 2003, was a world class chemist who wrote
more than 150 scientific papers and 10 university textbooks about
spectroscopy. Dr. Brian R. Strohmeier, who chaired a committee that gave
Malmstadt one of his many awards, has stated that, "Professor Malmstadt made
immense contributions to analytical chemistry, especially in the areas of
atomic and molecular spectroscopy, both as an educator and a researcher ... he
is well known for his brilliant scientific intellect, nurturing personality,
high moral standards, enthusiasm, creativity, and leadership in analytical
chemistry. The world of atomic spectroscopy today is largely a result of the
many generations of students that he has mentored" (University
of Illinois Biography of Howard Malmstadt).
Dr. Larry Faulkner, President of the University of Texas, has written,
"Howard Malmstadt was at least a decade ahead of others in understanding the
great qualitative changes that could occur in analytical chemistry by taking
advantage, first, of the advances in microelectronics and, later, by the new
technology resting on microprocessors. Malmstadt also anticipated the explosive
growth that would occur in clinical analytical chemistry."
I include these impressive accolades to emphasize the point that Dr.
Malmstadt was completely accessible to students, fellow faculty and visiting
teachers. He personally taught a science segment in Humanities & Science: A
Christian Perspective. His on-campus apartment was at one end of a student
dormitory. He took his meals along with students, many of whom had no idea
about Malmstandt's international reputation. Dr. Chignell, who has taken over
science leadership responsibilities for the course, is equally accessible to
While I do science professionally, my degree is in government. I have none
of the academic qualifications required to teach a science course in a
conventional university. So it came as a surprise in 1992 when Dr.
Malmstadt and Dr. Chignell invited me to teach a science segment in Humanities
& Science: A Christian Perspective. Their strategy became obvious on the
very first day of class, when I learned that most of the students were
humanities majors who were intimidated by science. Their fear was alleviated
when they learned that my college major is much closer to most of their degree
objectives than the experimental science I teach.
The University of the Nations approach to teaching science to non-science
majors works. In the segment I have taught each year at the Kona, Hawaii,
campus, students learn the basics of scientific methodology in hands-on
demonstrations. They spend time building basic analog and digital electronic
circuits. They go on field trips to the world famous Mauna Loa meteorological
observatory and to the astronomical observatories atop neighboring Mauna Kea.
They learn how the ozone layer and solar ultraviolet are measured. They learn
about the design and operation of sun photometers that measure haze and water
vapor. They learn to identify various kinds of clouds and how the appearance of
the sky is altered by smoke, dust and sulfate air pollution from power plants
and volcanoes. In addition to attending morning and afternoon lecture sessions,
each student is required to do an original science project. Completed projects
must be presented before the class and then in a poster session made available
to the entire student body.
The success of the students is measured in a final exam, which counts for
half of their final grade. The remaining half of the grade is determined by the
More important than their grades are the smiles on their faces when the
students present their science projects. Often students who were the most
apprehensive about the science element of the course become the most
enthusiastic presenters. Few of the students will enter science professionally.
Yet none of them will be intimidated by science as they go through life, for
they will have observed real scientists and their instruments at work and
performed and presented their own scientific study. Isn't that what a well
rounded education is all about?