By Matushka Manna Whitfield
Since my earliest memories, I have been fascinated with science. Nurtured in large part by my father, who is a geochemist and astrobiologist, making sense of the natural world has been one of my greatest passions. Before becoming a science teacher, I was able to immerse myself in the laboratory experience as a graduate student. It was there that I was able to hone my skills in the scientific method, within the context of lab science. As a science teacher I have had the privilege of nurturing the wonder and honing the scientific prowess of the next generation.
Our intellect, our thirst for understanding and our insatiable curiosity are part of the traits that make us so uniquely human. We are constantly striving for a greater understanding, a greater communion with one another and with the world around us. I have never seen this as the desire to “conquer”, but rather the desire to be in communion with. As we gain a deeper understanding of the natural world, it increases, not diminishes, our awe of creation. The stars and the universe are no less beautiful since we have come to accept the heliocentric model of our solar system. That we can predict the weather, track hurricanes, and seed clouds to make them rain makes a sunset no less glorious, nor the much needed rain any less miraculous. We can tailor chemotherapies for the specific genetic profile of a cancer, but this does not make the journey of the sick and suffering less grueling, and it certainly does not eliminate the need for human love and support. Knowledge, when it is available, complements prayer and human contact. Knowing the biochemical and physiological details of the process of conception, gestation and birth makes the eventual entry of a newborn into the world no less wondrous and glorious, and mysterious.
My greatest joy as a teacher comes when a student exclaims that they cannot stop thinking about science. The student typically says something such as, “I find myself seeing science everywhere. I’m at the grocery store and I’m thinking about fruiting strategies, or we’re driving down the road and I’m thinking about the coefficient of kinetic friction and whether or not we have enough braking distance…” This usually elicits nods of sympathy from others, or exclamations like, “Wow, I thought I was the only one!” Helping my students become more engaged, more curious and more interested in learning about the world around them is part of what will help them remain inquisitive and confident learners.
Knowing that I am married to a priest has also opened another door to conversations that I treasure. Students excitedly share their own religious milestones such as bas mitzvahs and confirmations, and ask questions about faiths and their differences. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked, “How is it that you can be a believer, and a science teacher?” And almost each time, the question has been asked by an adult. The students that I have taught do not seem to have difficulty understanding that our quest to make sense of the world around us — to be able to make predictions and provide explanations — is not opposed to having faith in a personal God who loves and lives with us. In fact, students usually feel a sense of relief that they do not have to choose one over the other. Confidence in a weather forecast, a medical diagnosis, an understanding of genetics and the ability to predict the next visit by Halley’s comet does not diminish our belief in God as a loving Creator. Neither do they have trouble both placing their faith in a God who cares for them and placing their confidence in the theories of natural selection, epigenetics and quantum physics to help us gain a deeper appreciation of the way this marvelous world works. Children are not simple, but they can see with a purity that somehow we lose along the journey into adulthood. This something which our Lord encourages us to regain: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).”