When Howard Wright decided to introduce a unique project, it caught the interest of his students and drew participation from another Catholic school across town.
Wright, a dentist-turned-chemistry teacher at the all-boys Chaminade High School in St. Louis, presented his students with the opportunity to apply their knowledge of chemistry to a project designed to build awareness of the human fetus.
“I wanted to teach chemistry, but I wanted to put something important into the curriculum,” Wright said. “Some people think that science and religion are diametrically opposed, but the more I get into science, the more I see what a great work of God science is.”
The effort included teacher Liz Miller and her religion class at Notre Dame High School, an all-girls school. “The project provided a great opportunity to discuss abortion,” Miller said. “We have a responsibility as Catholic educators to help our students understand.”
According to Wright, the intent of the assignment was not to argue abortion but to find a commonality between disciplined Euclidean science and the Church’s view on the humanity of the fetus.
Michael Corte, chair of the theology department at Chaminade High School, was impressed with his colleague’s ability to connect with his students and engage them in the project. “The greatest thing about it is that it took a science discussion and a theological discussion and put them together,” Corte said. “Interdisciplinary investigation doesn’t usually happen.”
“The assignment was talked about among the other teachers,” Corte said. “It opened up possibilities for me. I could work with other schools too.”
Wright’s chemistry students approached the nature of the fetus armed with their knowledge of science, including the unique character of the fetus’ hemoglobin, DNA and chromosomes.
Miller’s religion class examined the issue from a theological perspective using Scripture, papal documents and Catholic doctrine.
The project required the students to write a paper to explain to a member of the other class how the fetus is an independent living person. With names withheld, papers were exchanged between the two classes, and each student composed a response to the paper he or she received.
Reading what their counterparts had written was an eye-opening experience for both classes. “One of the Chaminade boys wrote, ‘The girl is able to speak from the heart, as she knows that she herself may become pregnant someday. I could never have this point of view,’” Wright said. “In contrast, the boys spoke of the issues often in the third person.”
Both groups of students concluded that an unborn baby is human. The chemistry students arrived at this conclusion based on scientific facts, including fetal perception of pain and the discovery of an enzyme produced by the fetus which scientists believe prevents the mother’s body from rejecting it.
The students in Miller’s religion class reached the same conclusion from a moral and theological perspective.
Bringing students from the schools together to study the issue from different perspectives highlighted for everyone how seamlessly the scientific precepts commingle with the faith, Wright said.
One Notre Dame student remarked that she was amazed how her paper compared to the Chaminade student’s paper. “I knew science and religion had related views about when life is really formed, but I did not realize how similar they actually were,” the student said, according to Wright.
The boys’ defense of the status and rights of the fetus as a human being surprised the girls. “In a same-sex environment, the girls don’t always know how and what boys think,” Miller said. “It was a new idea for them: that the guys would care about a fetus. The biggest thing was understanding that abortion is a man’s issue too. Their perception was that abortion is a woman’s issue. I was reminded that we have a lot of work to do with our students.”
Chaminade student Matthew Gauvain was glad to learn that others were opposed to abortion. “I was surprised that there were so many people who think the same as me,” he said. “It caught me off guard.”
Overall, students responded to the assignment in a positive way. “One of my students said, ‘It was one of the best assignments I’ve ever had in high school,’” Wright recalled. “It made the kids really think.”
Both teachers had the approval of their respective school’s administration for the joint project and plan to incorporate the assignment into future classes. Wright recalled a prayer of Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, the founder of the Brothers of Mary and the patron saint of Chaminade High School: “Help us ponder your designs in our hearts.”
This unique and engaging interschool class project led students to do just that.
Laurie Ghigliotti writes
from Atchison, Kansas.