Science Builds on Faith: STEM Studies Grow From Catholic Roots

Catholic colleges demonstrate importance of such learning is a natural consequence of the harmony between faith and reason.

Top, Rachelle Regli, a Benedictine College senior mechanical engineering major from Ferndale, California, fine-tunes a robot in her robotics class, as, shown in lower photo, students at the University of St. Thomas work in a campus laboratory.
Top, Rachelle Regli, a Benedictine College senior mechanical engineering major from Ferndale, California, fine-tunes a robot in her robotics class, as, shown in lower photo, students at the University of St. Thomas work in a campus laboratory. (photo: Courtesy of Benedictine College and University of St. Thomas)
“Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason.”

So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (159). And so says Benedictine College, a Catholic institution that has made a big push in STEM studies — “Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.”

The school’s push reflects the teaching in the Catechism, which notes that the importance of such studies is a natural consequence of the harmony between faith and reason.

“Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind,” the same passage in the Catechism states, “God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

“We definitely take on that whole ‘faith and reason dichotomy,’” said Darrin Muggli, Ph.D., professor and chair of Benedictine’s School of Engineering. “[Students] don’t have to make a choice or a sacrifice between professional preparation and their Catholic identity.”

In the past 10 years, the Atchison, Kansas, college has hired 15 new STEM faculty — more than in any other academic area. STEM majors receive the largest academic scholarships of any majors on campus. The college’s approximate annual investment for STEM fields  in the yearly operating budget is far more than for any other department. And the $25-million recently completed science and engineering building project is the college’s largest capital project ever, renovating a 60,000-square-foot existing science building and adding 40,000 more square feet to what is known as Westerman Hall.

“The education was always there; the facilities now just reinforce that reality,” said Muggli. “It’s a lot easier for people to believe great education is happening” in a building that is a “showpiece.”


Church’s Patrimony

Benedictine College is not alone. In Houston, the University of St. Thomas (UST) also has a powerful STEM focus — no surprise, as it is a member institution of the Texas Medical Center district, the world’s largest medical complex.

“Part of the great patrimony of our faith has always been science,” said the university’s president, Richard Ludwick, J.D., D.Ed.  “If you look at the great scientists throughout Western civilization, they were all people of faith.”

And at a Catholic institution, faith is a part of classrooms in a real way, including those where STEM studies are taught. UST — where biology is the largest major — takes its faith focus a step further with the St. Maximilian Kolbe Innovation Network, nicknamed “The Max.” It’s a virtual innovation space “where human dignity forms the heart of innovation,” Ludwick wrote on the university blog.

“That is an intentional way for the university to engage specifically in innovation,” he told the Register, “but at the center of that, at the very heart of that, is the human person.”

“The world can have all the innovation that human capacity brings,” Ludwick added, “but if we don’t keep our eyes focused on the human person and the dignity that is central to why we do those things, then it is only technology for the sake of technology.”

UST was founded to serve the large Catholic population in Galveston-Houston —  and to make a college education accessible. (That mission continues: UST has recently approved three new associate degrees — all in technology.)

At Regis University in Denver, the desire is the same — but in one important program the school organized, the student body is younger. Since the program was established in 2013, Regis has hosted “RU SciTech” camp, a weeklong day camp for middle-school girls in the Denver metro area who are interested in STEM fields.

“We wanted it to be a camp that was not like any other camp in the Denver metro area,” said Quyen Hart, Ph.D., a Regis associate professor of physics and astronomy who organizes RU SciTech with colleague Trisha Litz, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Sciences.

“We wanted to provide something really top-notch … for girls who would really want to go to a STEM camp but couldn’t because the family doesn’t have the means.”

Regis professors participate in presenting to the campers and lead them through projects in a variety of fields, ranging from neuroscience to biology and math. And in some cases, campers even receive take-home technology — like a Raspberry Pi, the low-cost, credit-card-sized computer device that inspired Litz with the idea of a STEM camp for kids.

“Entering middle school, boys and girls perform equally well and have interest [in STEM] on par,” reported Hart, but then the social changes middle-schoolers experience can start to impact their expectations for themselves. By the time girls reach high school, they may no longer think that they have a place in STEM fields.

“If in middle school they can find support to stay engaged in STEM, and still like it coming out, there’s a stronger probability they might stay with it through high school,” says Hart, “and a higher probability they might study it in college.”


Learning by Heart

For UST student Madeline Carter, 21, the drive to stick with STEM never really waned. An enthusiastic student, she enjoyed her high-school “Advanced Physics” class in part because it challenged her more than any other class. And the sciences provided a path to achieve her dream of becoming an astronaut.

Pursuing the sciences at a Catholic institution has had a powerful impact on her studies — and on her future, she said.

“A lot of my other friends who went to big schools for engineering or math, they can do a lot of very cool technical [things] that I may not be able to do now because I go to a small liberal arts school — but they don’t know why they’re doing anything,” she said. 

“I don’t know why anyone would want to walk through life without knowing the purpose. And I think I do.”

As one might hope, the STEM studies at Catholic institutions are about nurturing the whole person — not separating mind from spirit. At The Catholic University of America, Otto C. Wilson Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering (and a Christian, though not a Catholic), says he brings up issues of faith “as often as I can.”

“You have a mystery: We’re here. How did we get here? God gives us enough material so that we can probe around and understand,” he said.

“It’s part of being created in God’s image. The faith continuum is wonderful if you open up your heart and let God answer the questions you have.”

For Muggli, the ability to teach in his field at a Catholic institution is a tremendous gift.

“Instead of teaching engineering, I look at it … as ‘I’m teaching this child of God engineering skills.’ It’s a whole different way of interacting with the person in front of you.

“It’s an apostolate and a vocation, not just a job,” he added — although faculty certainly do a very solid job in preparing students for careers in their fields. Before graduation, 95% of Benedictine students already have jobs waiting for them.

“Being Catholic means you have to excel at your work; that’s what the faculty do,” said Muggli.

“The students are getting a great engineering education as well as getting a great liberal arts education; all combines to success in the workplace as well as success as a person.

“You get a great education, great preparation, and you grow in your faith.”

Ben Bogner, 22, who graduated in December from Benedictine with bachelor degrees in astronomy and physics, has not always found it easy to balance his scientific aptitude with his lifelong Catholic faith — so attending Benedictine was a great help.

“I would not be the same Catholic I am now if I had not studied in a Catholic environment. I would have gone through some very intense struggles,” he said, noting that media so often emphasize that science and faith are at odds, perpetuating the stereotypes that scientists must be atheists, and people of faith must not “believe in” science. That’s one reason he’s applying to graduate schools, with an eye on a career in academia.

“I want to be a respectable scientist — with research and papers and teaching experience — but to also be a solid witness to the Catholic faith,” he said.

“You can harbor both science and faith in your mind. I personally think [doing so] fosters and strengthens both.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.

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