The Voice: Fall 2002

The Voice

Science faculty wrestle together with how to teach technical courses Christianly

A few years ago, as Dr. Charles Adams was reviewing the student evaluations for his machine design class, he paused at question #14: “This course and the instructor helped me develop my understanding of worldview a) very little, b) primarily by presenting me with general information about a reformed worldview, c) by significantly relating a reformed worldview to the subject matter, d) by challenging me to think deeply about my faith and how it affects my life, in the context of this subject matter.” The student had written “irrelevant.”

Adams says technical courses often get low ratings on question 14, but as a professor who very consciously tries to make sure his students see the concrete implications of their faith in the field of engineering, that response made him wince and think harder about how to make sure students understand the importance of developing a Reformed Christian worldview and perspective in these courses.

Over the past few years Adams has had senior students wrestle with this issue as raised in question 14, and two of them wrote papers on the subject for the senior capstone course, Technology and Society.

Now, as dean of the natural sciences, Adams reads end-of-the-semester student evaluations for all courses in his division, and he finds similar responses to his colleagues’ courses. So he decided to invite faculty from his division to a three-day workshop to share ideas on teaching technical courses from a Reformed perspective. Three professors who teach technical courses in other divisions also attended.

With the school year only recently completed, twenty-two faculty members gathered for three days to discuss how they could improve their teaching for the next year. Those who attended say it strengthened the sense of scholarly community, renewed their commitment to teaching more overtly out of a Christian perspective, and gave them some concrete ideas to use in their classrooms.

Equipped with “The Educational Task of Dordt College,” and “The Educational Framework of Dordt College,” Adams’ students’ papers, and some articles relating to the topic, the group began by offering suggestions about how they might teach in a distinctively Reformed Christian manner.

Five professors then presented course syllabi incorporating some of the suggestions made, after which participants broke into small groups to work together on a syllabus of one of their colleagues in the group.

“There were different ways of approaching the issue, but all were helpful and legitimate,” says Adams.

At a follow-up workshop for the whole faculty in August, two professors, Engineering Professor Dr. Ethan Brue and Mathematics Professor Dr. Calvin Jongsma, each used one of their courses to demonstrate how they try to help students gain a better understanding of their subject matter from a Christian perspective.

Brue, who believes that his experience memorizing random Bible verses in high school may have done him more harm than good because it helped avoid dealing with the actual subject from a Christian perspective, used scripture studies and reflective articles to help set a context for the more focused and abstract study of the properties of materials done in his material science course. Based on scripture passages and these articles, he talks with his students about such things as a pagan perspective on materials, how atoms are God’s creatures, and how intimately technology and trust are tied together.

Jongsma demonstrated an approach aimed at helping students understand the historical and cultural context of the specialized field of abstract algebra. Using the “four coordinates” of the curriculum as spelled out in “The Educational Framework of Dordt College,” he set goals and objectives and planned assignments that would help students better understand abstract algebra and its place in God’s creation. In addition to helping his students learn the basic theory for common algebraic structures and learn to construct abstract mathematical proofs, he tries to help them see the grandeur, depth, and coherence of this part of creation and helps them understand the abstract, deductive approach that propels modern mathematics. To see how the creation interrelates and develops he wants them to understand how algebra brings together different mathematical developments, understand how algebra developed, and learn how to use computer programs for abstract algebra. Armed with such knowledge, he believes they will be prepared to use their skills and knowledge in concrete ways as they begin serving in their careers.

Adams is pleased with how the workshop went and is grateful for the sense of cooperation and enthusiasm present among all who participated.        

“No one who participated believes that technical courses don’t have to concern themselves with perspective,” he says. But it became evident to all that there are many different aspects to the problem and many things to think about and work at.

“I think we need to develop more philosophical insight into our disciplines to help us put them in better context,” he says. “It’s legitimate to say abstractions are fundamental to the sciences and so they’re more difficult to put into a broader context than a history or philosophy or social science course. In a sense every course takes things out of context to examine something more closely.” But Adams is unwilling to allow that to be an excuse for not nurturing in students a strong sense of perspective and worldview in technical courses.

It may be harder to establish a context in abstract, technical science courses, but having a deeper philosophical understanding of the subject area will help, he believes.

To deepen understanding among themselves and the rest of the faculty, the natural science division planned this year’s Fall Faculty Lectures, inviting Dr. Roy Clouser, a professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey and author of The Myth of Religious Neutrality and Thinking With the Heart to give three lectures. Clouser’s books deal with the hidden role of religious belief in theories.

Individual responses to the workshop were overwhelmingly positive, yet as one participant said, “The seminar gave me some ideas that will help me teach topics from a more consistently Christian perspective, but it didn’t provide a magic formula for how to incorporate issues of perspective into teaching technical material.”

Nevertheless, it did renew commitment and enthusiasm for doing so. One professor said, “Before this I demonstrated my perspective to my students in an implicit way. Because of this seminar I will make it more explicit.”

“Faculty on campus rarely have the opportunity to share ideas about teaching. This topic was central to what we do at Dordt,” said another.

For many it was working together that was exciting and energizing. “The highlight was seeing that I’m not the only one who struggles with these issues and seeing that others, including experienced professors, are interested in improving their courses,” said a younger faculty member.

As dean of the division, Adams is gratified to hear such comments.

“This is the most important aspect of my job,” he says. “We hire competent people here, so even new faculty, once they get going, can hold their own in the classroom.” But giving professors the resources to teach out of a Reformed Christian perspective is the reason Adams stays in his job as dean.

“Otherwise I’d be back in the classroom. And besides, why else have Dordt College?”