Initiative is a leap of faith and learning in classroom
By Rick Vacek
GCU Today Magazine
Microbiology is generally not the sort of class where you expect to hear a lot of prayer unless there’s a big exam coming up. But when Dr. Daisy Savarirajan introduced a daily devotional into her microbiology classes at Grand Canyon University, the reaction was atomic.
“Many of them were happy with the prayer we do to start the class because they truly feel that they kind of get stressed out by the stuff they are required to learn,” she said. “Starting with the prayer calms them down, and we have seen a difference in the lab environment.”
And when she did a written survey of the students asking them a simple question — Did it strengthen your personal faith in Jesus Christ? — the response was overwhelming, with 90 percent responding that it did.
“Some of them said they never really realized that science and Scripture can go hand in hand and not be highly contradicting things. They were very happy to see some of the dots that could get connected. They could see the big picture.”
Savarirajan’s experience mirrors that of other instructors who have been inspired by GCU’s Integration of Faith, Learning and Work initiative, which began in 2013 under the direction of Dr. Jason Hiles, dean of the College of Theology.
The centerpiece of the program is a monthly “Lunch and Learn” at which faculty members gather at Howerton Hall to eat lunch and hear one of their peers talk about assimilating faith into the classroom. Hiles also does a presentation, and attendees are given time to tackle discussion topics in small groups.
“I think it’s been tremendously successful in the second year,” Hiles said. “What I’ve found is that there’s a genuine interest — the faculty is beginning to drive this, not just at the Lunch and Learns but in general — and there’s strong leadership in each college. It’s bringing to a head something that’s already happening elsewhere on campus, just in little pockets.
“So when we come together, what they tend to get excited about is when one of their colleagues leads off and says, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m doing.’ That’s where they start asking questions. What I’m really doing is just making the conversation happen, and then I offer a little bit of insight into the Christian world.”
As part of the program, the University also hosted on campus a public speaker series featuring a group from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Detroit pastor Christopher Brooks and philosophers Dr. Paul Copan and Dr. J.P. Moreland.
The time is now
After a series of informal conversations, the idea formally took root in 2013 when GCU President/CEO Brian Mueller gathered a group of 40 prominent faculty and staff members to get their ideas about how to integrate and reinforce the program in the curriculum. Hiles spent the 2013-14 school year organizing introductory presentations and roundtable discussions at all of the colleges and preparing for the Lunch and Learns and a separate speaker series in 2014-15.
When he attended the Lunch and Learn in January, Mueller noted that the Integration of Faith, Learning and Work is especially important because the University will be making significant faculty hires in the coming years. “I don’t think there’s a better, more opportune time to do this than right now,” he told the audience.
Dr. Hank Radda, GCU’s provost, said the challenge was to determine how to implement the program in a thoughtful but expedient manner.
“You want to integrate more into the classroom, integrate more into the curriculum, but that’s not a quick change. It’s a process, and we began with the faculty,” Radda said.
“We started brainstorming with faculty in all the colleges and asked them for their ideas, which were very helpful. We began formulating our plans the second year, then worked on specific courses and areas in the curriculum, delving a little more deeply into each college.”
For the 2015-16 school year, pending input from the administration, Hiles said, “I’d like to open the door a little more to the conversation about work. We’ve talked about the integration of faith and learning in discipline-specific areas, and it just comes out implicitly, ‘This is what I do for work.’ I’d like to make it a little more explicit.”
Faculty benefits, too
An interesting dichotomy of the Lunch and Learns is that while each of the faculty presenters got huge support from peers in their own college, regular attendees said they also benefited greatly from listening to someone in an unrelated field.
The dynamic of introducing prayer into, say, a business classroom is far different from doing it in the College of Theology, but the idea is the same.
“I found it very inspiring,” said Dr. Pete Charpentier, an assistant theology professor. “I learned how to do a lot of things better. One of the things you always have to be careful of is doing things the same way and getting into ruts.”
Anna Faith Smith, assistant dean of COT, said, “It’s really critical for the faculty to derive a sense of comfort when they speak to the students in this way. If people think it’s safe, they’re empowered.”
The ultimate comfort is for students, of course — and not just while they’re at GCU. As Radda put it, “The reality of this will be how they carry their faith into their profession and the working world. Students have to make it specific to their discipline to make the conversation more relevant.”
But the benefits go both ways. As much as Savarirajan was amazed by the impact prayer had on the students, some of whom had never prayed by themselves, she also saw what it did for her.
“I am a Christian and I am also a scientist, so it makes sense to me,” she said. “There’s a purpose. I can see the whole big picture of why God has created us. As I observe His creation, everything makes sense. It helps me to know Him better — not to know about Him, but to know Him.”
Savarirajan was particularly moved by the survey response of one student: “Coming to GCU really made me take control of my faith and make it personal to me because I no longer am able to piggyback on my school’s or family’s religion but had to work on my own relationship with Christ.”
Amen to that.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LUNCH AND LEARN PRESENTERS
● Cindy Seminoff, College of Science, Engineering and Technology: “I try to get students to think about how this relates to their lives. It’s so exciting to see their passion for Christ. I see it in the way they interact in class.”
● Michael Kary, College of Fine Arts and Production: Said there are two kinds of opportunities in integrating faith into acting: providential (daily focus on who put you here) and intentional (know your course and your students).
● Ben VanDerLinden, College of Humanities and Social Sciences: “My work is teaching, and in teaching I find ways to support and ways to challenge, which for me is an integral part of living out faith.”
● Dr. Moronke Oke, Colangelo College of Business: “The key is sincerity. Your life will speak to the students. They see you as human, someone who has been in their shoes, someone who cares about them.”
● Ben Vilkas and Lisa Bernier, College of Education: Recommended getting students to lead devotions in class, go on mission trips, volunteer and engage in deeper philosophical discussions.
● Sherri Spicer, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions: “Integrating faith into the classroom in the College of Nursing directly relates to our understanding of nursing as a calling rather than a career.”