Calling All Boundary Pioneers: Making Sense of Science and Religion

Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond, by Joseph W. Shane, et al. (National Science Teaching Association, 2019)

Knowing how to navigate the relationship between science and religion has dogged teachers, administrators, and schools across North America. Many have found it challenging, especially with the difficult history of science and religion in schools—most notably, with evolution. Yet it is fair to say there are few topics that are more relevant, timely, or needed than science and religion in the science classroom.

Many students come with myriad questions about ethics or a sense of wonder for creation; they often find these conversations meaningful and engaging. Teachers and schools alike long for wisdom, clarity, and guidance on how best to engage. In addition, as much as these concerns are philosophical and moral questions, they represent issues of equity and justice in the classroom (Shane et al. 144–47). We need teachers and administrators who will serve as mentors and guides into the unfamiliar territory of science and religion in the science classroom. Drawing upon a phrase from sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, the authors of Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond set out to inspire a generation of educators to be “boundary pioneers” (Ecklund 45–50; Shane et al. 7–8).

Whom Is This Book For?

The text is co-­authored by four educators—Joseph W. Shane, Lee Meadows, Ronald S. Hermann, and Ian C. Binns—together with a broad group of educational collaborators. Most notably, this book on science and religion is published by the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), with contributions from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The publication of the book alone signals the importance of this issue to NSTA and its guiding principles—the pursuit of learning, championing of science, inclusion of all, fostering of passion, and building of community. It is also a notable publication by an organization that typically does not directly address religion.

This book is written for all science education professionals, not just those who teach within religious educational settings.

This book is written for all science education professionals, not just those who teach within religious educational settings. In their preface, the authors identify the primary audience as “our fellow science educators” (viii), which includes those from elementary to post-­secondary, as well as those in teacher education. The authors also embrace in their audience “advocates for good science and quality science education, including parents, administrators, elected officials, and other policy makers” (viii). Based on their expanded educational focus in the subtitle (“and beyond”), one can safely assume that informal educators from museum staff to science club leaders are part of their target audience.

Aim and Summary of the Book

The goal of the book is to equip and encourage a wide range of science educators to tackle the challenging issue of science and religion in the science classroom and beyond: “No student in a public-­school classroom should feel as though he or she needs to choose between science and faith” (8). To facilitate their aim, the book is written in a conversational tone (explaining key concepts and using minimal jargon), in an accessible format (short chapters averaging 10–12 pages), and with self-­contained chapters (easily organized from elementary to post-­secondary to informal education). One could work through chapters of the book, individually or with a group, for professional growth and development. Pastorally, the authors seek to equip educators to be able to help all students: “Our overall approach gives science teachers a way to move beyond conflict and toward a classroom honoring both science and students’ cultural and religious background” (89).

There are few books that seek to address this contemporary and pressing issue. Volumes have been penned that explore various facets of science and religion; however, those books are written from a theoretical or conceptual perspective. Making Sense fills the gap of science-­religion in the classroom, with the emphasis being unapologetically educational. While the book provides a few introductory chapters for those initiates to science and religion, the lion’s share of the book is focused on teaching and practical concerns, particularly in an American context. The book is co-­authored by educators and has several chapters from contributing authors with varied teaching experience, each writing in their area of expertise. The advice given is not theoretical—rather, it is hard won in the classroom or in museum halls. From my perspective, even if there are differences of opinion or emphasis among the authors, the shared experience and pedagogical focus gives a foundation from which to ground the conversation.

The advice given is not theoretical—rather, it is hard won in the classroom or in museum halls.

In fitting with the educational emphasis, the scope of Making Sense recognizes the significant role that informal education plays in the broader public. School accounts for only 9 percent of our lives, so much of our learning occurs in the “and beyond” (Fenichel and Schweingruber 1–2). Making Sense makes a compelling call for teachers to be engaged in the work of advocacy. As gifted communicators, many teachers often play a key role in community outreach—sharing key lessons and practical wisdom from the classroom within the community. The authors encourage teachers to take the risk to stretch themselves in this way and connect with a wider audience.

Furthering the Conversation: Some Critiques

Let me raise two areas where I hope to broaden and embolden the valuable conversation that NSTA and the authors have initiated. The first is related to the scope of the conversation reflected in Making Sense. This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print or digital edition of Christian Educators Journal.

Andrew Kirk is an assistant professor of education at The King’s University (­Edmonton, AB). Trained in chemistry (MSc, University of Alberta) and biblical languages (MDiv, Regent College, Vancouver, BC), his interest is in secondary science education. He has taught science, theology, and science-­and-­theology in secondary and post-­secondary settings. Andrew is currently working toward a PhD (secondary education, University of Alberta) under the supervision of Gregory P. Thomas, PhD.

Works Cited

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Ecklund, Elaine Howard. Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values That Move Us Beyond Fear. Brazos, 2020.

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Shane, Joseph W. “Becoming ‘Boundary Pioneers’: Roles for Academic Science Departments in Understanding and Addressing Interactions between Science and Religion.” Journal of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science, vol. 87, no. 1, June 2013, pp. 3–9.