Theories of Origins: A Multi-And Interdisciplinary Course for Undergraduates at Wheaton College

Article excerpt

Scientific theories for the creation of the universe, earth, life, diversity of life, and humankind are explored in Theories of Origins, a science course at Wheaton College. Professors representing the sciences and biblical studies guide the class through origins theories and introduce various approaches for relating scientific and biblical accounts of creation. Most students are nonscience majors, so a major course objective is for students to appreciate the sophistication of modern scientific work on origins problems and to understand the evidence leading to paradigms and paradigm shifts. Tensions perceived by students between scientific and biblical accounts of origins are diffused when the purviews of science and theology are properly defined and the cultural-historical contexts of scriptural accounts are considered. Learning is stimulated by a variety of means, such as illustrated lectures, videos, demonstrations, Internet resources, selected reading materials and integrative writing assignments, a museum field trip, and class discussions.

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Theories of Origins (IDS/SCI 322) is an upper-division science course for undergraduates at Wheaton College in which students encounter scientific explanations for the origins of the cosmos, earth, life, species, and humankind. The course is team-taught by faculty representing the disciplines of astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, physical anthropology, and biblical studies. Accordingly, students get exposed to important scientific concepts in each discipline in addition to the sustained consideration of origins from scientific and theological perspectives. Established in 1860, Wheaton College represents the evangelical Christian tradition in undergraduate liberal arts education. Scientific origins theories are controversial, indeed often considered antagonistic to biblical faith for many people in the evangelical subculture. Surveys of students entering the class reveal a range of positions on origins questions, often tracking the results of national polls.

A major course objective is to give students a background for evaluating the merits of scientific and theological claims for origins theories. Mainstream scientific approaches to origins are emphasized in the course, but alternative or "anti-establishment" approaches such as creation science and Intelligent Design are presented because of their influence among Christians. Efforts are made throughout the course to diffuse the warfare metaphor for science-faith issues by framing science and theology as complementary means of discovering truth about origins. This course embodies the educational purpose of Wheaton College to combine faith and learning in order to produce a biblical perspective needed to relate Christian experience to the needs of contemporary society.

Objectives, Outcomes and Assessment

Theories of Origins (hereafter, Origins) is a full-semester, non-lab course in the general education curriculum (4 credit hours) intended to follow completion of a lab course (e.g., general geology, biology, chemistry, or physics). Most students in the course are nonscience majors. Origins was conceived and developed by a committee of science faculty in 1994-1995, at a time when the college was revising the undergraduate general education program. The new program, "Essentials of a Christian World View," was designed with the purpose to "introduce men and women to an understanding and appreciation of God, his creation and grace, and to our place of privilege and responsibility in the world." The Christian liberal-arts project of faith and learning integration is embedded in specific goals for all general education curricula. Objectives for Origins reflect the goals that were developed for all science courses in the Nature Cluster of the General Education program. Specific outcomes for students who complete Origins are listed in Table 1.

Student demand for this course has influenced us to raise the class size from 40 to 60 students. …