Teaching the Wonder: Why Christians should study evolutionary biology

Lecture_Shots_2008 for 2009 prospectus
Lecture theatre, City site By Nottingham Trent University. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For many Christian students going to university, studying evolutionary biology is a real eye-opener. Not only do they get to see evidence for something they may have been encouraged to reject in the past, but they can also come to appreciate the beauty and complexity of evolutionary process itself. April Maskiewicz Cordero is a biology professor at a Christian University in the US, and she travels this journey with a large proportion of her students every year. As a teacher of teachers, she has thought long and hard about how she can help these young people come to terms with biology, and is passionate about sharing her own sense of wonder at the living world with them. An abbreviated transcript of the podcast is below. If you want to hear the details of what she does, and about her interest in ecology, you will need to listen to the recording.

You spent quite a long time teaching in high school before you went back into academia. Can you tell us a little bit about that path?

My teaching career started after I finished working in a lab. I got my teaching credential and I taught two years in junior high and then several years in high school (secondary school). I did that for almost a decade, and I absolutely loved teaching teenagers. During that time I kept feeling, “I’m not done. I’m supposed to be doing something else.” I didn’t know what it was, but I kept feeling not quite satisfied. At the same time a university sent some student teachers into my classroom for me to mentor, and then the University asked me to take on a full time position at UC San Diego as a teacher educator. While I was in that role I realised all the jobs I wanted to do were going to require a PhD, so at 35 I went back to school and got my PhD through a natural sciences department. My PhD is in mathematics and science education – I studied teaching and learning in biology, specifically ecology and evolution.

And now you’re teaching biology as well as educating teachers?

Yes, I teach biology to undergraduates. We also have a graduate programme in our biology department for practicing teachers, so I also teach research methods, science education research, and that type of thing.

Point Loma Nazarene is a Christian University, and now you’re also speaking on science and faith through the BioLogos speaker’s bureau. We were just talking about a TedX talk you gave where you spoke about how you came to reconcile your science and your faith. Can you tell us briefly what makes you so comfortable with being an evangelical Christian biologist?

It took me a long time to get comfortable with being a Christian biologist. I think at first I hid my love of biology from my church friends, and in the science community I would hide that I was a Christian. But I’ve come a long way in the last twenty plus years and I think that the beautiful, elegant, creation that we see when we study biology – from molecular to macro – is stunning. The more I learn, the more intricate detail I see, the more I learn about the way things interact… of course there’s a creator God! So I feel that as a biologist my God is huge. My God is really outside of the box that I feel most people try to limit God to when they think about creation. That’s what biology does for me, and I love to share that with other people because breaking God out of that box can be very good for us.

When you teach ecology and evolution you have to go through a process of helping your students, many of whom aren’t comfortable with evolution, to think through how they can reconcile their science and their faith. Once some of those barriers come down, how do you cultivate their sense of wonder?

I’ve given a lot of thought to that in how I design what I do in the classroom. The course I teach for the freshman science majors is called Ecological and Evolutionary Systems. I start with ecosystem ecology, I transition into evolution, and then I end with conservation ecology – and I do that intentionally. Ecology can bring out a lot of awe and wonder in students because they don’t realise the intricate interactions that are occurring in the functioning of an ecosystem. A lot of these kids will come to college understanding cellular respiration and photosynthesis, and so on, and in the first three or four weeks of my class I bring all those pieces together and we look at how these processes works so beautifully together to make an ecosystem function.

What about evolutionary processes in themselves? Is there anything in what you’re teaching there that captures people’s imaginations?

It takes a couple of weeks to get though some of the basic mechanisms of evolution, but then we start transitioning into species interactions, or co-evolution. We look at the moth with the long proboscis and the long flower with the pollen very deep within, and we also look at how males and females co-evolved. Everybody always uses the peacock as an example, but we look at things like a particular diving beetle where the male has evolved some ‘suction cups’ – I would say – to hold the female down in the water. The female has evolved furrows in her back to resist the male holding her underwater, and there are these beautiful co-evolutionary relationships over many generations where the female changes, the male changes, the female changes, the male changes… You can look at ant and fungus interactions and see the same thing. The students become very enthusiastic about  the complexity of species interactions and the ways species co-evolve.

Then we transition to large scale evolution, or ‘macro evolution’ as a lot of people call it. When the students are ready to hear about that, we start looking at the evolution of whales as a case study. We look at how a wolf-like mammal evolved over 50 million years into our current day whales, examining changes in the bones, the pelvis, and nasal features. We look at the genetics and the embryology, and it’s just a wonderful story. It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle to explain how we have the diversity of animal life that we see today. Unfolding that story with them is really fun. I feel I could teach evolution for 40 weeks instead of the 8 that I have!

So it’s about having the tiny, almost quirky, little details as well as the big picture?

Yes. That’s where awe can really be inspired.

And how do they connect that with their faith? How do you find ways of encouraging them to do that?

PEXELS-pen-writing-notes-studying.jpgOne of the things I have them do is write a paper answering two questions. Why is the question of whether a Christian can accept evolution beyond the species level an important question for a biology student in a Christian university? And where are you at in your thinking about evolution and creation – what sorts of conversations and readings have changed your views in this past semester?

What kinds of things do they say?

These students are science majors and they know they’re going to go out into a community that accepts evolution, so they want to be informed. Second, a lot of them come to accept evolution (which is not a requirement to pass my course) – but then they say, “I want to be able to communicate with other people about evolution!” Other students say, “No, I don’t accept evolution, but I want to understand all the different components of it so that when I engage in conversations I have an understanding of what evolution really is”. There’s also curiosity. They want to learn about evolution because a lot of people in the world accept it.

Do you find that for some of them, this experience of studying biology and connecting it with their faith has a positive impact on their faith, and their life as part of the church?

I do. In fact one of the questions I ask on the evaluation at the end of the class is, “How has this course impacted your faith?” A lot of them tell us that their faith is actually stronger because they’ve had to think deeply about the science and what they believe. By being forced to think about that, they now own their own faith. When young adults come to college, many have the faith of their parents, or the faith of their youth pastor. They just believe this because they’ve always been told to believe this. We – I’m going to use the word “force” – them to face it (evolution and faith). What do you think about creation, and what do you believe? Why would you reject this, or accept this? How do you reconcile this with your faith?

pexels-photo-192555So their faith is still there, but it’s grown and is encompassing much more than it did before?

Right, so their God is a bigger God.

Thank you April for sharing your thoughts today. It’s great to hear about what you’re doing, and there’s a lot there for us to learn from.

Thank you so much for inviting me. It was fun talking with you Ruth.

Further information

april-maskiewicz
© BioLogos

April Maskiewicz, PhD, is a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University. Her research focuses on developing more effective approaches for teaching ecology and evolution that enable students to develop not only factual knowledge, but biological ways of thinking and reasoning about the living world. As a Christian biologist trained in science education research, she is in a unique position to investigate science students’ perceptions of the relationship between scientific issues that evoke controversy (i.e. origins, evolution, human origins) and Christian faith. Dr. Maskiewicz gave a TEDx talk on evolution and faith and she was featured in “From the Dust,” a BioLogos sponsored documentary.  She is also active in several professional development projects with schoolteachers as well as university biology faculty and was one of four professors coordinating the PLNU/BioLogos Biology by the Sea Christian school teacher program.

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