An Invitation to Wonder

How do we provide educational experiences in the sciences that help students think about themselves as global citizens? How do we support students in their personal and spiritual formation? These important questions are integral to our work as faculty in Catholic Higher Education.

A primary way that I encourage students to think about the integration of the mind and heart is through course activities that explore the intersection of science and society. While not explicitly faith-based, these curricular activities invite students to engage with science policy legislation connected to practical, socially important issues. Subjects we explore include fuel economy standards for automobiles[fn]S. K. Mayer, “The Sport Utility Vehicle: Debating Fuel Economy Standards in Thermodynamics,” J. College Sci. Teaching 38 (2), 18-23 (2008).[/fn], the installation of wind turbines on public lands[fn]S. K. Mayer, “Cape Wind: A Public Policy Debate for the Physical Sciences,” J. College Sci. Teaching 36 (7), 24-27 (2007).[/fn], and federal energy-efficiency standards for household lighting.[fn]S. K. Mayer, “Bringing science policy into the optics classroom: Solid state lighting and United States lighting standards,” Am. J. Phys. 78, 1258-1264 (2010).[/fn] Each of these topics provide students with the opportunity to think about what they are learning in thermodynamics or optics and how their growing expertise enables them to engage knowledgably in socially important issues. My hope is that these activities help students use their growing scientific expertise for the common good.

More recently I have been paying a lot of attention to the sacramental nature of what we teach in the sciences and I find myself thinking about wonder. I read a terrific book recently titled “Teaching and Christian Practices.”[fn]D. I. Smith & J. K.A. Smith (Eds.). Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (2011).[/fn] One of the editors, J. Smith, argues that we are formed as people not merely by the ideas we exchange, but by the habits that we practice. I am increasingly mindful about providing opportunities for students to “practice” being reflective and awakened to wonder. I assign short reflective writing assignments where students write about a topic that they have found to be interesting, intriguing, or beautiful. I also invite students to take Wonder Walks around campus where they are asked to photograph, for example, some beautiful optical phenomenon we have discussed in class and then post the picture and a short description to a class discussion board.

One of the Jesuit ideals that I have really come to appreciate, and that has deepened my own spiritual journey, is the idea of “finding God in all things.” I believe that sacramental engagement with the world requires practice; a slowing down and noticing. I try to provide intentional opportunities for students to cultivate this awareness and to develop a deeper engagement with the natural world. Experiences of wonder provide a powerful opportunity for awakening the soul.