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Dordt College News

Walking on holy ground in science

March 14, 2014

Peter Mahaffy makes a mark in the world of chemistry and shares in last year's Nobel Peace Prize

After graduating from Dordt in 1974, Peter Mahaffy completed a Ph.D. in chemistry at Indiana University. After a two-year faculty position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, he “took the road less travelled” and in 1981 accepted an invitation to help develop a science program at a fledgling sister institution to Dordt College, The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta. “It has been exciting and rewarding to watch the development of King’s into a faithful and supportive learning community that is having an impact disproportionate to its size on the lives of many people in Canada and internationally,” he says.

Mahaffy is married to Cheryl (Den Boer, ’77), who has worked as a reporter and in corporate communications for the city of Edmonton, eventually becoming a speech writer for the mayor. She is currently an independent writer and proprietor of Words That Sing. The Mahaffys have three adult children.

Dr. Peter Mahaffy was a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last fall when he began receiving dozens of email congratulations after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Partnering with OPCW is one of the ways Mahaffy acts on his conviction that “once one knows something, one has responsibility for that knowledge.”

Since 2005, Mahaffy has worked with education and science colleagues to help OPCW find ways for people to understand the devastating effects of chemicals and promote their responsible use. At a meeting of 190 national authorities in The Hague in November, he introduced these attendees to an interactive learning tool called “Multiple Uses of Chemicals.” Created by Mahaffy, his students, and faculty colleague Brian Martin at The Kings’ Centre for Visualization in the Sciences at the King’s University College, the website (www.multiple.kcvs.ca) explores the beneficial uses, misuses, and abuses of multi-use chemicals. Visitors to the site can learn what is being done to monitor the abuse of multi-use chemicals and are encouraged to think about how to respond to this global problem.

For decades, Mahaffy’s work has been driven by a desire to help people understand how science and technology can be used for transformation and redemption rather than destruction.
Mahaffy’s day job is teaching chemistry at King’s. He’s known as an effective and innovative teacher and received the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 2011 James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry. He was selected from an international list of nominees who have served with special distinction as teachers of chemistry and have had a significant impact on chemistry education.

Mahaffy has co-authored a university textbook, Chemistry: Human Activity, Chemical Reactivity, that is widely used in Canada, Australia, and Europe. He was a charter member of the International Council of Science’s Committee on Freedom and Responsibility, helping articulate policies related to the freedoms and responsibilities of the science community. He spent six years as chair of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry’s Committee on Chemistry Education, setting global standards and helping get 2011 designated as the International Year of Chemistry. And he has served on the ACS Presidential Task Force to provide professional chemists with tools to understand and explain the science underlying climate change.

“I have always been interested in the beauty and intricacy of the world around me and always wanted to know what makes things tick,” says Mahaffy. “I have been equally intrigued by the complexity of the human dimension in the practice of science.” As a Dordt undergraduate, he studied philosophy and sociology in addition to chemistry, wanting to learn how scientific developments take place over time, and how science, technology, and culture interact with and shape each other.

Mahaffy has come to think of being in a science classroom or laboratory as walking on holy ground, a place where one should take off one’s shoes in awe and reverence at the privilege of nurturing discovery, imagination, and sense-making in others. He quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “God's Grandeur”:  “And when one’s feet can feel, no longer being shod, one begins to discover the soil that is bare now, and that it ‘wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell’.”

“I love Hopkins’ poem as an articulation of the grandeur of creation, of the need to understand the human imprint on it, and of the warm breath of God’s spirit that blows over it. It’s awesome when students capture a sense of this,” he says. “The OPCW work is one way to work at waging peace and bringing reconciliation with the tools of science and education.”

Mahaffy believes that a deep understanding of what it means to be human is often “underappreciated in science types.” So, he creates “rich contexts” for teaching and learning science to show that chemistry can make an important contribution to real life challenges. In Mahaffy’s text, the section on isotopes begins with Lance Armstrong and performance enhancing drugs. Such contexts not only demonstrate why a topic is important, but also open the door to worldview conversations and discussions about values and the role and influence of science, he says.

In an interview published in the November 6, 2012, issue of ChemViews online magazine, Mahaffy says, “Students care about learning that is relevant to their lives, and also learning that helps them see that they can solve important problems. As a profession, we haven’t done well enough at ensuring that students have resources that show chemistry as an exciting, modern activity, done by human beings just like them—and that chemistry is relevant to solving important global challenges.”

He gives an example: most people know that the ingredients in cough suppressants can be turned into crystal meth. High school students can be encouraged to think about how to use that knowledge to avoid the abuses chemistry makes possible.

“Learning chemistry will give students powerful tools to understand the links between human activity and our planetary boundaries, to address challenges such as global climate change, the need for alternative energy, accessible medicine for diseases in different parts of our world, potable water, and secure food supplies,” he says, adding that almost everything he reads gives him ideas for new ways to contextualize learning.

Mahaffy agrees with Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann, who has worked with King’s students and faculty in drama and chemistry, that science can be a democratizing force, equipping ordinary citizens to engage in meaningful decision-making in society.

Mahaffy’s innovative teaching tools are helping educators, scientists, and the general public see the intricate connections between science and their everyday lives in more ways than his OPCW work. 

“Most of our efforts in chemistry education have been directed toward the education of future scientists. This is crucial, but we also need to attend to the needs of the public for understanding the fundamental science that is relevant to almost every topic of decision-making in our world,” he says. Salespeople who market chemicals as well as national leaders who wage war need to understand how chemistry matters, Mahaffy believes.

One way Mahaffy tries to share such knowledge is through The King’s Centre for Visualization in the Sciences. He, Martin, and their undergraduate student researchers develop digital learning resources that help people understand concepts that can be difficult to visualize or explain, resources like the Multiple Uses of Chemicals. Each year a quarter of a million people from more than 100 countries visit www.kcvs.ca for interactive learning tools on topics ranging from elementary science and chemistry to physics and the science of climate change.

“Who could have anticipated the amazing doors that have opened to allow us to speak to needs and challenges in our world?” Mahaffy asks. He doesn’t use the word “us” in a royal sense. His soft-spoken, collaborative approach has led to partnerships with people and organizations around the world, sharing ideas and practices that benefit everyone.

“We can do so much by working together,” he says.

SALLY JONGSMA

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