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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 graduate?

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 wrong.

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 students

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 science project.

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?

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