Faith and science purposefully coexist at GCU

The integration of faith and science even extends to the Natural Sciences Building. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the November issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version, click here

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU Magazine

Grand Canyon University biomedical engineering junior Gabriela Calhoun wanted to do more than just deep-dive into a typical anatomy project for her undergraduate research.

She wanted to move mountains.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something more.’ We have so much potential as engineers and STEM students to make an impact. So why don’t we?”

Calhoun’s biotechnology undergraduate research group found the “more” they were searching for when one of the students in the group started painting a picture of what his mother, a nurse in Rwanda, sees daily. She had told him about amputee after amputee in her care.

It was a problem that resonated with the undergraduate researchers.

Gabriela Calhoun's biotechnology undergraduate research group developed a 3D-printed, low-cost bandage designed to prevent infections -- and possible amputations -- in Rwanda. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

The team learned that a small cut would lead to an infection and eventually the amputation of a finger or a hand, a foot or a leg.

They wondered, could they engineer a better bandage to prevent infection? Could they save someone from losing a limb because of something as treatable as a minor cut? Could they change the course of someone’s life?

“It was really important for us to find something we were all passionate about, which was when we came to wound care. The point of it was always just to help others,” said Calhoun, research team lead, of the humanitarian efforts of the 3Derma team, which developed a low-cost, 3D-printed, hydrocolloidal bandage to help in wound care in developing countries.

Those humanitarian considerations – the conviction to do something more impactful in the world – is something that didn’t just happen by accident for Calhoun.

It’s who she is.

On the one hand, she’s an aspiring biomedical engineer; on the other hand, she’s a Christian who wants to do good in the world.

So when it came time to choosing a college, Calhoun wanted to find a university that spoke to who she is. She wanted to find a place where her faith and love of science – concepts that, so often, clash — would come together meaningfully.

She found that at GCU, which intentionally integrates the Christian worldview into everything it does.

It’s who GCU is, too.

Faith and science integration

In 2013, GCU began a five-year initiative to more thoroughly integrate faith into its curriculum, and not just in obvious programs such as nursing, teaching or social work.

The challenge was to fully integrate GCU’s Christian worldview into the hard sciences, fields of study Christian education often shies away from.

“Every single course we teach is impacted by the Christian worldview,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “As that relates specifically to the sciences, by studying both theology and science in conjunction with each other, you’re going to produce more complete learning about the world, which is why we are totally committed to both.”

Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, asked, without faith informing science, where do the answers come from when it comes to the deeper questions?

What faith-science integration really means at GCU, said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, is “joining together knowledge of God and knowledge of the universe” so we can better understand God, men and women made in God’s image, and the world we inhabit.”

That union of faith and science is something the University extends to the classroom as students prepare for their vocations, Hiles said, because of the belief that “our work within the world matters to God and our neighbors and must be carried out with integrity and excellence. We are convinced God is honored by faithful service within all vocations, including science.”

GCU’s leaders launched the initiative to purposefully integrate faith and science so it can promote the common good by strengthening the University’s mission to educate students firmly in a Christian perspective and by preparing them for careers marked by kindness, service and integrity.

At GCU, that means committing itself to these convictions: that God is the creator, that fallen humans need to be redeemed and that God is restoring the world through Jesus Christ. It is through this view of the world — creation, fall, redemption and restoration — that the University approaches education.

That four-fold framework is at the core of who GCU is.

“When you start to ask, why would we integrate faith into learning, academic discipline and vocation, the simple answer is, if we don’t do that, we haven’t really educated students from a deeply Christian perspective,” Hiles said. “Perhaps we’ve educated them in a Christian environment, and they may breathe in things culturally on a campus like this that are positive and affirming. But we’re actually trying to produce graduates who can connect the dots from the foundational truths of the Christian worldview to their larger life.”

Like the rest of the University, the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) faculty connects the dots to their students’ larger life through faith-science integration.

If professors are teaching a lesson about the human body, for example, they look to Scripture to find passages that might speak to human anatomy, such as the passage of the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). They might nestle a Bible passage onto a slide related to that day’s physics lesson. Or they might question students about the ethics of a project.

Biology professor Dr. Daisy Savarirajan said one of her favorite topics of discussion, when it comes to melding faith and science in her classroom, relates to microorganisms and disease containment.

She will bring up the Ebola outbreak and Kaci Hickox, the Maine nurse whom doctors quarantined in 2015 after she treated victims of the virus in West Africa. That’s when Savarirajan gingerly steers the conversation toward Leviticus, the book in the Bible peppered with numerous laws about cleansing houses, examining lepers, purification after childbirth and the like.

It wasn’t uncommon for a person in biblical times who might be marked with a lesion or an infection to be excommunicated — essentially the biblical version of quarantine.

“That is clearly taught in the Bible — in the Old Testament — way, way back before people started even doing science. They just had no clue it was microorganisms,” said Savarirajan.

Biology professor Dr. Ramesh Velupillaimani points out to his students the patterns in nature.

“We start from the cell to the tissue and then organs and then the body, the organ system. We show them the patterns,” he said. “Then I’ll ask the students, ‘What do you think? Is it like somebody designed it or did they happen by themselves?’ ”

For Velupillaimani, those patterns aren’t random.

“There should be some designer — that must be God. So we will help them to see that. There is a God, and He designed everything.”

When Christian Clifton worked on a wind turbine project that would help a Third World country, he also made humanitarian considerations a priority. (Photo by David Kadlubowski)

Mechanical engineering senior Christian Clifton sees firsthand how ubiquitous the Christian worldview is in his science studies.

For the final project in a statistics and dynamics class, his professor assigned him to build a wind turbine. But building a wind turbine isn’t just building a wind turbine at GCU. The assignment came with this gauntlet: Only use materials you would find in a Third World country.

Like that wind turbine, Clifton’s brain started churning: “How do I make sure I’m providing enough power for these people? How do I make sure it’s something they can fix without having to go out and buy a $5,000 new part?”

Clifton said, “We really are being stretched to think: What are the big effects outside of this tiny little part of the system we’re working on?”

The application of the Christian worldview into his studies is what Clifton appreciates about GCU.

“It’s, let’s not just learn all this stuff, but how do we use it to make the world a better place?”

Another distinction about GCU, beyond faith-science integration, is how its faith efforts are united under one unifying umbrella. The University’s beliefs are outlined in its Doctrinal Statement and are filtered from the University level to the colleges and the classrooms through One Foundation. It is where all aspects of the University’s Christian mission and vision come together – the glue that unifies the University in Christian thought.

It is under One Foundation, for example, that CSET brings in high-level scientists to speak about science and faith, such as a recent talk by Rice University chemist Dr. James Tour, who touched on his groundbreaking nanotechnology research as well as how important the Scriptures are in his life.

Working together well

When it comes to faith and science, there’s a strong temptation, Hiles said, to pull back from the Christian faith rather than move toward it like GCU does.

“In the modern era, especially in the West, anything dealing with religious conviction, anything dealing with values, has largely been pushed to the periphery. There’s a sense in public conversations or in public life that we have to keep our private convictions off to the side,” Hiles said. “We’re not supposed to talk about our faith in public. We’re not supposed to talk about our values. We can’t talk about our deepest convictions.”

Without faith informing science, Hiles said, where do the answers come from when it comes to the deeper questions: What are we doing with what we know? Should we modify genes? Should we alter human beings?

“We believe it is really important to integrate the Christian worldview into the curriculum because the further science gets into being able to do some very controversial things, it needs to have some regulation and some belief that there are absolute truths,” Mueller said. “So, yes, we are studying science, and we want to be a contributor to the advancement of knowledge, but we want to do that with a very firm foundation from an ethical perspective that involves absolute truths.”

With faith being an integral element in guiding what we do in the realm of science, Mueller said, “As a university, we don’t believe there’s any incompatibility. In fact, we believe the opposite. We believe that there’s tremendous compatibility between what God revealed in the Bible and what God revealed in the natural world that He created.”

He added, “The more we learn about science, the more it informs our theology, and the more we learn about theology, the more it informs our science.”

Dr. Mark Wooden, Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, said GCU shows students how faith and science can work together.

CSET Dean Dr. Mark Wooden also doesn’t see a clash between the two. He references the Book of Genesis, where it is written that God gave humans dominion over the world, and he cites passages in Job that say the way to understand God’s creation is through investigation.

“That leads to the sciences. That leads to our process of science investigation,” Wooden said. “Christians don’t have a problem with delving into science and using that as a tool, and I think we need to help students understand, from a Christian worldview, that those two can work together well.”

Welcome to the table

Faith and science have worked together well in Wooden’s life.

The CSET dean spent most of his career teaching at secular universities before finding his place — his passion — at GCU.

“I came out of a strongly evolutionary biology Ph.D. program. I worked with many evolutionary biologists — they were all atheists. There wasn’t a single person I knew of that I could speak with (about the Christian faith) in that environment,” he said.

That’s not the case at GCU.

Biomedical engineering instructor Kyle Jones said, “I love being able to talk about my faith with my students, just being able to bring it up in class — to try to be a positive influence.”

He also loves GCU’s inclusiveness – a conviction that resonates with a large segment of the campus community.

“I’m coming from a Christian worldview, but I want anyone who’s not to feel just as comfortable. When you can integrate Jesus into the classroom, it makes for a more inclusive atmosphere,” said Jones.

Not that inclusiveness means putting aside the University’s Christian worldview, which is an absolute.

“We know that not every student shares the same worldview as we do, and we invite those students to share their perspectives in the classroom through respectful and thoughtful discussion,” Mueller said. “We don’t force our beliefs on anyone. But it is our hope that, by being exposed to a Christian worldview, those students will start to understand it and want to emulate others who model their lives on the behavior of Jesus Christ by loving our neighbors and ministering to people in need.”

Wooden said of being able to have those kinds of conversations, “That’s the reason I came here. We have the Christian component, the community feel. Canyon is a very special place. It really is.”

Keeping the faith

GCU’s commitment to the Christian worldview is important to parents who choose to send their children to study here, particularly in the sciences, Savarirajan said.

According to Campus Renewal, roughly 70 percent of Christian teens nationwide lose their faith during their first year in college.

“They (Christian families) want them to be exposed to Scripture while they are learning science, said Savarirajan, CSET’s One Foundation faculty lead. “Many students, when they are bombarded with some of these evolutionary theories, they start getting very confused, and then at some point, they‘ll say, ‘OK, this is what science is telling me. Where do I find a balance? How do I continue to stay in the beliefs in which I was raised and also be able to do science?’”

At GCU, the opposite of that Campus Renewal data is occurring. University-wide faith integration surveys indicate almost 85 percent of traditional campus students have a positive perception of faith integration and almost 87 percent of online students have a positive one. Moreover, nearly 75 percent of all students said their faith has grown while at GCU.

“Now they can see that they can be a Christian and a scientist. There’s no conflict there, and they don’t contradict each other; rather, they complement each other,” Savarirajan said. “Students tell me, ‘Now, because of my Christian faith and because of what Christ has done for me, I can practice science knowing that this is why He has created me.’ It is very beautiful when we get that response.”

It helps, Hiles added, when GCU’s professors live out the Christian faith.

“In this culture, people put a lot of weight on scientific information more than they do on any other type of data,” Hiles said. “So if a scientist says it, we feel like it must be true. If a scientist coming from a non-Christian perspective says all of the science proves something about God not existing or the universe not coming from a creator, it rattles them (students). They don’t know what to do.

“So when you have scientists who are genuinely Christian and genuinely experts in their field, it’s a very weighty thing that they’re doing. It can really impact a student pretty profoundly.”

That integration of faith and science has impacted Gabriela Calhoun profoundly.

Calhoun was an agnostic, she said, until her junior year in high school, when her mom found a church she loved.

“The summer of my junior year in high school was when I toured GCU. That was when I was coming into my faith. They accept you and teach you what you need to know and are always open to discussions, and that really helped me grow in my faith.”

GCU is helping her move mountains – through faith and science.

Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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