Cultivating Space for Christian Practices in our Science Classrooms

Our shared imagination of classroom science is created by the images, words, texts, and activities in which the class participates. For example, textbooks often use beautifully rendered, polished images. These images make what we know seem comprehensive and static. They do not always create natural space for discussion of scientific models and how they change over time. Similarly, the way textbooks often present scientists crafts a narrative of an individual following a clear path to discovery. These and other elements of our spaces and pedagogical practices focus our attention on the individualistic aspects of science. But in reality, solving scientific problems requires teamwork and interdisciplinary collaboration (Cooke 7). To prepare students, we should think carefully about how we describe science and the work of scientists. The story about science into which we invite students can impact students’ beliefs about whether they can be successful scientists and what value they bring to science.

What if we designed our classrooms to cultivate in students the skills and practices needed to tackle scientific problems as a team? If we want students to understand scientific practice, our classes and labs should include learning activities where students depend on each other for success in solving problems. Such activities require students to draw on disciplinary knowledge but also use that knowledge in a context where they must navigate solving problems with others. Solving problems together can increase students’ abilities to articulate their own thinking, recognize gaps in their knowledge, and increase their openness to learning (Eberlein et al. 263). However, if success requires working together, we should also prepare students for the challenges that come with working in teams and equip them to participate effectively. As we explored more deeply in the previous article in this issue, a focus on building a thriving community can help to overcome the challenges that can inhibit the productivity of teams and their ability to solve problems. Christian practices can become a bridge into discussing interdisciplinary team environments, as well as deepening students’ understanding of how faith can shape their vocation in science and interdisciplinary team settings.

The Christian practices my colleague Amy Wilstermann and I engage with students include both individual and communal practices. Communal practices like hospitality, commitment, and celebration build and strengthen community life when they are lived out together (McLaren 100). Individual practices like humility, silence, rest, and gratitude shape character and can help prepare an individual to engage with others in communal practices that lead to a thriving community. Experiencing a Christian practice is a powerful way to explore the effect it has on the shared work of learning together and solving complex problems. 

If we want students to understand scientific practice, our classes and labs should include learning activities where students depend on each other for success in solving problems.

In our classrooms and laboratories, we share why a practice is important, then take time to live it together before discussing the effect of the practice on learning, teamwork, and belonging. Many of the practices carry risks for participants because they require vulnerability. Committing as a class to trying things together creates a safe shared space for exploration. Choosing practices that help students thrive in the classroom or lab also creates the incentive for trying the practice. Therefore, it is important to be explicit about how the practice fits in the classroom and what it contributes to learning. This allows students to understand why they are engaging with the practice, reflect on the impact it had on their experience, and consider how and why they may want to continue it in the future.

In a teaching setting that employs active learning pedagogies or group work, using Christian practices can improve learning. Students collaborate and participate more effectively because the pedagogical practices and Christian practices align to reinforce the course goal of working through problems like a scientist (Smith 72). In the following sections, we explore some of the practices that contribute to thriving teams and the way they shape learning experiences. 

Fostering Hospitality and Belonging through the Practice of Silence

For our students, we define the practice of silence as freeing oneself from the addiction to distraction and noise to be present and attentive to what is at hand. When students learn about silence, they learn about why it is important to remove distractions and how that contributes to being able to listen well to others. After an assessment of their own comfort with various elements of silence and listening, students practice silence through intentional choices to set aside distractions or listen to and understand someone else in the classroom.

 When students learn about silence, they learn about why it is important to remove distractions and how that contributes to being able to listen well to others.

In reflections after practicing together, we explore how silence supports the communal practice of hospitality and how, together, these two practices contribute to a thriving community by enabling us to better listen to, understand, and value the ideas of others. One student wrote concerning this practice:

I managed to go out of my way and talk to someone new in our biochemistry class. We talked outside the classroom for almost one hour (yes, one hour—I was so surprised that our first real conversation lasted that long). After that first conversation, I have totally different perceptions about her. Before talking to her, I already held a couple of perceptions toward her based on the way she was interacting in class, as well as her look. From the conversation with her, I learned that I should be more mindful of my perceptions toward people, since perceptions can never be close to the beauty that person’s personality may hold. It is easy to talk about institutional ways to treat people with hospitality, but it is harder, yet sometimes more impactful, to enact this hospitality daily with the people around you.

In this reflection, the student has made a connection between the focal practice (silence) and hospitality and has learned about the complexity and value of another student in their class. It is common with this practice that students begin to see the value of their peers in the class. Belonging increases for all students as they build relationships and learn how to listen to and value each other’s ideas. Belonging requires deep community that includes a shared imagination for what we are doing, why it needs to be done together, and why it is important (Freeman et al. 205). Students value and work harder at learning about and connecting with each other when they are asked to attend to silence during their science course. Pedagogies and practices together draw students’ attention to how values of inclusion and belonging are lived out in the classroom. When students feel like they belong, engagement and participation increase. This creates efficiencies in learning because the teacher can spend less time trying to draw students into participation in teams or learning activities.

When students feel like they belong, engagement and participation increase.

Cultivating Humility and Engagement through the Practice of Study

A valuable communal practice we explore with students is study, which is defined as the lifelong activity of the mind in seeking to understand our reality beyond stereotypes and misinformation. Students learn how this communal practice is different from the study they do for class, which is often centered on increasing their mastery of material to do well on an exam. Students are asked to think about how their engagement with others would change during class if their goal were to understand and learn from another student’s unique perspective. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Our Christian practices definitions throughout this article are adapted from Adele Calhoun’s definitions. We remove or broaden some of the religious language in the definitions to make them more directly applicable to the learning community in the classroom.

Rachael Baker is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Calvin University. Her scientific research in the highly interdisciplinary rare disease field led her to focus on how to prepare students to be effective collaborators and team members in the classroom and in their future careers.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Adele. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. InterVarsity, 2015.

Cooke, Nancy J., and Hilton, Margaret L., eds. Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. National Academies Press, 2015.

Eberlein, Thomas, et al. “Pedagogies of Engagement in Science: A Comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, vol. 36, August (2008): 262–73.

Freeman, Tierra, et al. “Sense of Belonging in College Freshmen at the Classroom and Campus Levels.” The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 75, no. 3, Spring (2007): 203–20.

McLaren, Brian. Finding our Way Again. The Return of the Ancient Practices. Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Smith, David. On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. Eerdmans, 2018.