Big Questions Grant: Framing Teaching and Research in the Sciences and Mathematics by the "Big Questions" of Meaning and Value

Project Summary

This project investigates the hypothesis that the big questions of meaning and value can be used to productively frame both pedagogy and research in science and mathematics. We suggest an approach in which the big questions are used to amplify and structure scientific inquiry and the acquisition of domain specific knowledge in traditional science and math courses, and where modern scientific understanding and research is used to illuminate the big questions in a fresh and appealing way. Anticipated outcomes include improved faculty and student engagement, enhancement of critical thinking skills, apprehension and appreciation of big questions outside the classroom, increased faculty communication, creation of a foundation for future contributions to the big questions dialogue, and production of methods and materials that will allow ready duplication of this approach at other locations.

Samford University led this two year project (Summer, 2009–Summer, 2011), which also involved other institutions in the Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education (BACHE).

This project was made possible through the generous support of the Teagle Foundation.

Administrative Team

Wilton Bunch, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor of Ethics
Department of Philosophy, Howard College of Arts and Sciences
Samford University

Steve Donaldson, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science and Computer Science Program Director
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Howard College of Arts and Sciences
Samford University

George Keller, III, Ph.D.

Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of Biology
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Howard College of Arts and Sciences
Samford University

Tom Woolley, Ph.D.

Professor of Statistics and Chair of the Department of Economics, Finance and Quantitative Analysis
Brock School of Business
Samford University

Conceptual Framework

The Current State of Big Questions and Liberal Education

Here is a big question: Why are the “Big Questions” asked naturally by children but pursued only under duress by most students? Is it because many of the attempts at answering those questions come across as arcane or irrelevant? Is it because they are provided with little or no context? The questions are, after all, "big" because their answers have the potential to make a significant difference to human understanding. They are also “big” because the answers are outstanding, in the sense that they are either unknown or lack consensus. Shouldn’t students want to explore such questions?

Our observation of higher education is that most liberal arts universities (including Samford) do a relatively good job of introducing students to the big questions in one or two required “big questions” courses, primarily via “Great Texts.” The big questions are not, therefore, disregarded, but simply relegated to specific humanities courses, then left to die a slow death (unless, perhaps, the student remains in a narrow range of humanities disciplines). There is, therefore, a disconnect between the content of most courses and the big questions, and this is particularly true of science and math courses where the emphasis is (necessarily) on acquisition of a certain level of technical insight and proficiency. As a result, students advancing past their freshman year may see little relevance to the big questions (particularly as those questions relate to their course of study). These students, therefore, are not likely to think routinely about the big questions and are even less likely to contribute to the search for or production of answers to them. Even science and math students with inherent interests in the big questions may feel that they must sacrifice that interest for the traditional pursuit of their chosen discipline. Perhaps this is one reason that many, if not most, people (even, or especially, after they are out of college) think that the big questions are at best unanswerable and at worst irrelevant and have, therefore, all but given up trying.

Working Hypothesis

The major hypothesis of this project is that the big questions can be used to productively frame both pedagogy and research in progressive levels of faculty and student engagement. In particular, we believe that the big questions can be used to amplify and structure domain specific knowledge and inquiry in the traditional scientific disciplines, including mathematics. Furthermore, it is our contention that modern scientific knowledge and research holds the promise of illuminating many of the big questions in a fresh and appealing way. For example, physics and mathematics have much to say about chance and determinism, neuroscience and psychology speak to freewill and consciousness, computer science investigates issues related to intelligence and, together with neuroscience and psychology, explores creativity, and chemistry and biology (indeed, all sciences) contain theories that directly pertain to what it means to be human.

We believe that educational experiences will be richer when students see and understand the relationships between big questions and their chosen discipline. Furthermore, students exposed to this method of classroom engagement will be more likely to make an eventual contribution to knowledge pertaining to the big questions. Seeking to understand traditional science and mathematics in a big questions framework and using that framework to help guide research exposes individuals to new ways of thinking about those questions. It also increases the chances that they will contribute new insights toward their answers (including the possibility of providing new scientific and mathematical evidence to support or refute existing perspectives). An important corollary is that, without some training in the sciences, there will be aspects of the "big questions" that will be inaccessible, if not invisible, to those who might venture to pursue them. The irony here is profound because, under the present educational scenario, the anticipated insights must come from the group least prepared to provide them.

Finally, lives framed by big questions are richer than lives framed by little ones (including lives framed by rote application of technical principles). We think it is far better to have big thoughts about little things (e.g., quantum physics) than little thoughts about big things (e.g., transcendence).

A Novel Means to Integrate Big Questions and Liberal Education

This project incorporates a two-pronged, synergistic approach to test both the pedagogical and research components of our hypothesis. Specifically, we plan to:

Implement a pilot program to incorporate a big question framework into traditional science and math courses. That is, we plan to intentionally structure select science and math courses such that the material to be learned is presented in the context of one or more big questions. The objectives are to show students how the material they are learning can be used to encourage thinking about specific big questions and to utilize big questions to make the course content more relevant and meaningful. The keys to our strategy are its intentionality and formality. We envision science and math courses where big questions are woven into the very fabric of the course rather than being mentioned sporadically or not at all. Thus, our plan seeks to demonstrate how to interleave the required course content with big questions to the benefit of both.

Create specific faculty-student research projects in traditional scientific and mathematical disciplines, framed by big questions and aimed at providing new insights into those framing questions. We believe that practically any scientific research agenda can be viewed from a big questions perspective with the results understood in terms of the questions framing that research. Besides increasing the inherent interest in the research (i.e., by helping to identify it as a potential component of a much larger picture), this approach can be utilized to help select between competing projects. It also opens up new publication possibilities for the researchers. We envision a faculty mentoring relationship with students modeled on the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, but one in which big questions are inherent in the project design and objectives.

Incorporating Big Questions in the Classroom

We suggest that a big questions framework can be employed in the conduct of virtually any course in the natural, computational, and social sciences and in mathematics. Our plan is to initially pilot this strategy in courses selected from the following areas: biology, scientific inquiry, introduction to computer science, economics, statistics, and mathematics. In this initial pilot effort we will be refining the content/big question relationships, developing course presentation methodologies, and evaluating the effectiveness of our efforts. The initial pilot effort will be followed by the addition of courses from other disciplines. Consider the following example as an illustration of the integration we envision between traditional course content and select big questions:

Course: Introduction to Computer Science

Typical content: algorithms, information encoding, logic, computer architecture, processing hierarchies, abstraction, language, alternative computing paradigms, machine intelligence, artificial life, self-organization and emergence, computability, computational complexity, models of computation, the future of computing, societal and ethical issues

Sample "big questions" with which to frame course content:

1. What does it mean to be human? Language, intelligence, and creativity have long been considered hallmarks of human distinctiveness, but the advent of computing and robotic technologies provide unique perspectives from which to examine the issue of what it means to be human. Progress in man-machine interfaces suggests that this issue can now be addressed in light of these technologies by asking, "What will it mean to be human?" The prospect of progressing from a cell phone in every pocket to a chip in every head has far-reaching implications for this age-old question.

Related big questions include: Is creativity primarily an illusion or an inescapable consequence of human existence? How can mechanistic views of humans be reconciled with perspectives of meaning and value? What is thought? What is understanding? What are the limits to human intelligence? What is consciousness? Could a machine be conscious? What would that mean for humans?

Sample computer science topics relevant to this area include digital computer design, brains and neural networks, artificial intelligence, robotics, and self-replicating machines.

2. Under what circumstances can simple components governed by simple rules produce complex behaviors? A variety of technological existence proofs (e.g., the creation of complex computing devices based on simple binary logic) suggest how complexity can occur as the by-product of human ingenuity. Furthermore, computational principles of self-organization and emergence suggest that even the complexity observed in nature can potentially be understood from the perspective of relatively simple rules operating on basic structures. Language and intelligence, for example, appear to arise from the interaction of large numbers of neural components and even life itself is encoded in simple strings of DNA.

Related big questions include: What is life? How can structurally based operations (such as language and other aspects of intelligence) convey meaning? Are there universal principles of self-organization and emergence? What are the ramifications?

Sample computer science topics relevant to this area include coding systems, programming, Boolean logic, artificial neural networks, cellular automata, and self-assembly.

3. How can random processes yield meaningful results? Human existence appears to be shaped by a fascinating interaction of deterministic and random forces, but this very interplay presents a number of dilemmas for both scientists and theologians. Computational models provide interesting insights into issues such as the nature of randomness, the relationship between randomness and determinism, and how constrained randomness might be productively exploited to produce many of the effects observed in nature.

Related big questions include: In the large space of possibilities, how do significant creatures and behaviors arise? Can concepts of free will be reconciled with either random or deterministic world views? How can one be a good scientist without embracing a stifling determinism? Is it possible to embrace free will without appearing scientifically naïve? In what ways are views on transcendence affected by perspectives on randomness and determinism?

Sample Computer Science topics relevant to this area include random number generators, cellular automata, Monte Carlo simulations, and genetic algorithms.

Incorporating Big Questions in Research

We believe that, just as in the classroom, a big questions framework can also be productively utilized in the conduct of serious science and mathematics research activities. Consequently, we plan to sponsor faculty-student research projects that are intentionally oriented toward the exploration of a scientific or mathematical question where a better understanding holds the potential to illuminate one or more big questions. In liberal arts institutions this work will most likely be done as summer research projects. Examples of science-oriented research that can potentially be used to illuminate big questions follow:

Big question: What is creativity?

If “chance is the only source of true novelty” (Crick), then how can creativity ever be viewed as one of the hallmarks of humanity? Are we just a stage on which the random processes of chance and necessity play out or is there a transcendent aspect to creativity? More specifically, structural operations originating with the genetic code appear to produce systems that achieve meaningful levels of creativity. How is this possible? What would prevent comparable manipulations of other symbols from achieving similar effects (i.e., in machines)? What would such accomplishments portend for human conceptions of worth and dignity?

Research question: How can meaningful creativity result from structural manipulations of symbols?

Discipline: Biology
Research agenda: Explore emergent properties originating with creative evolutionary processes.
Discipline: Computer Science
Research agenda: Model creativity in artificial systems.

Big question: How do memory and perception define what it means to be human?

Memory-robbing diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) and lesions that lead to perceptual deficits (such as hemi-spatial neglect) suggest that individuals are largely defined by their memories and awareness of self. When these systems fail to work properly, some essential aspect of what it means to be human appears to have been lost.

Research question: Can scientific activity restore meaning to those suffering from cognitive deficits?

Discipline: Psychology
Research agenda: Explore the cognitive foundations for meaning and purpose.
Discipline: Sociology
Research agenda: Evaluate attitudes and responses toward impaired individuals.
Discipline: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Research agenda: Design artificial systems to replace lost functionality.
Discipline: Biology
Research agenda: Investigate the genetic bases for cognitive disease.

Work Plan

We are engaging in a two-year project, with courses conducted in each of four semesters and research projects performed during the second summer. The first summer will be utilized for detail planning activities to elaborate the mechanisms outlined here and to prepare for the first semester of pilot courses at Samford University. Throughout the project we will be recruiting new faculty participants so that in subsequent semesters we can add to the number of courses taught at Samford and expand the program to other institutions. Samford University is a member of the Birmingham Area Consortium for Higher Education (BACHE) which includes (in addition to Samford) Birmingham Southern College, The University of Alabama at Birmingham, Miles College, and The University of Montevallo.

Between semesters we will utilize our mini-term period (Jan Term) and the second summer to train the new participants, all the while evaluating and refining our techniques and strategies. These activities will lead to the production of materials that can be utilized to facilitate duplication of our efforts at other locations.

Dissemination activities (beyond those involving the other pilot institutions) will include website development (with extensive links to materials), conference presentations, and journal article submission.

It is important to note that the prerogative to implement the initiatives planned for this program fall within the normal autonomy that any faculty member possesses with regard to ongoing decisions about how to conduct existing courses and what research agenda to pursue (and how). We think this is a major strength of our plan, in that one can expect strong results without the upfront need for administrative approval for extensive curricular change. We anticipate the possibility that project results will suggest more extensive changes at certain institutions, but the benefits we postulate are independent of such.

Institutional Impact

This project is intended to produce an immediate and lasting effect on students taking classes structured within its guidelines. Our strategies will make the big questions more relevant, add new appeal to traditional subject matter, and help students (and faculty) see the practical nature of the big questions. From the outset we anticipate that these enriched classroom experiences will result in better engagement with course material and better retention. They will also support the development of critical thinking skills because any progress toward answering them will most likely come from reducing them to smaller questions that can be answered—the natural modus operandi of the sciences.

In addition, we believe that intentional concentration on big questions and the perspectives provided for thinking about them in science and mathematics courses will help to produce a mindset that will make a student more likely to apprehend and appreciate such questions outside the classroom and long after the course is over. Such insight can be contagious and contribute to enhancement of the intellectual climate on all of the campuses involved. Furthermore, the knowledge that what one is learning has far reaching implications is one of the greatest steps any student can take because it is critical to developing life-long curiosity and a thirst for understanding. Such students are also more likely to perceive their own potential to contribute positively to the production of future insights (and therefore more likely to consider graduate studies), even as they are acquiring the tools with which to do so. All of this, of course, constitutes a novel means of supporting the liberal education emphases of our respective institutions.

Finally, we also believe that our efforts have significant potential to increase dialog among faculty on the big questions. An advanced degree does not, of itself, confer immunity from tunnel vision and stereotypical thinking in one’s chosen discipline and may even contribute toward it. We thus believe that a renewed engagement with big questions can be a liberating experience for faculty as well as students.

Broader Impact

One of the main hypotheses of this project is that the scientific and mathematical disciplines have significant potential to improve understanding of the big questions and to postulate plausible answers to them. Because of this, we think it imperative that students and faculty everywhere learn to see the connections between the big questions and those disciplines, as this will provide a broader base from which to expect positive results. To that end, a major objective of this project is to pilot an approach that can be readily duplicated at other locations. In particular, we envision a scenario in which our techniques can be transferred to and emulated at other institutions of higher learning (including non-liberal arts schools) and even at high-schools. This, we think, will leverage the results of our work far beyond the important impacts on the campuses involved in the pilot program. Consequently, we intend to disseminate our work to a broader base via website, publication, and presentation.

We also think that discussions of the type we are proposing here can take place in venues other than traditional classrooms (or standard research environments). For instance, Samford University sponsors a variety of faculty-led student cadres that can be customized to a variety of topics including those addressing big questions from a science perspective. We expect many other institutions have similar programs. There is also the potential for study groups at non-academic institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, mosques) to explore big questions via the mechanisms outlined here. Besides providing new insight into the big questions, this could have the added benefit of increasing science understanding in many of those situations.

Ultimately, we think that a concerted effort to integrate science and mathematics education and research with the big questions has the potential to help students see the importance of all forms of knowledge (i.e., not just science and math) with regard to improving comprehension in their chosen fields. This is because what we are really trying to convey is the importance of analogical reasoning and metaphorical thinking in developing the insights necessary for comprehensive understanding in any field of study. Students usually fail to appreciate the potential for a true liberal education and often, as a result, resent certain required courses. However, we expect that students exposed to courses and research framed by big questions will be more likely to appreciate the potential value of any source of knowledge as they realize how the power of metaphorical thinking opens the door to a web of interaction and insight that enables even apparently unrelated disciplines to inform one another.

Evaluation Criteria

The success of this project can be evaluated by ascertaining (1) the extent to which the proposed components are implemented and (2) whether the proposed methods produced the desired results. The first of these criteria will be documented via progress reports and a final report posted on the project website. In particular, we will post information pertaining to the specific courses and research projects conducted within the big questions framework so that the implementation goals are clearly visible. The course plans and methods that we make available will also provide testimony to project success.

Of course, the major objective of the project is to affect student learning and faculty engagement and this will be assessed in several ways:

Concept Mapping

We think that the visual feedback provided by concept mapping techniques will make this one of the most important tools we could use to assess the development of student insight into the relationship between course material and the framing big questions. Consequently, we will require that all courses taught for this project use, at a minimum, a before and after appraisal of student understanding via concept mapping.

Writing Assignments

Writing is a powerful formative assessment tool. When students are required to write their understanding of a problem and the resources available to deal with it, two things occur: (a) the student must organize material and think about it and (b) the instructor receives feedback as to the student’s progress. Each course will, therefore, contain several writing assignments that specifically focus on the relationships between big questions and course material.

Faculty Portfolios

These will document faculty engagement with the proposed process, highlight successes and failures of specific methodologies, and provide helpful suggestions for instantiations of future courses.

All three of these assessment methods will be used in the dissemination process to help convey the motivation for conducting courses within the proposed framework and to provide supporting materials for those wishing to implement this approach in their own courses. Faculty leading summer research projects under this grant will be required to implement the concept mapping and portfolio assessment components.

Project Schedule

This project is designed to be implemented on a 24-month schedule formally beginning July 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2011.

Summer 2009

  • Formalize general plans and methods. This critical activity is intended to provide the foundation for subsequent project development and evaluation.
  • Select initial pilot courses and instructors for fall 2009.
  • Create initial course plans.
  • Develop course evaluation rubric.

Fall 2009

  • Conduct initial pilot courses at Samford (e.g., using administration team members).
  • Recruit new faculty participants for spring 2010.
  • Identify new courses for spring 2010 and obtain instructor commitment. Goal is six new instructors, including participation of at least one new institution.

January 2010*

  • Evaluate initial pilot courses (identifying successes, problems, special needs, concerns, etc.).
  • Make a first pass on refining and formalizing pedagogy strategy.
  • Solicit summer research proposals.
  • Conduct training workshop for new faculty participants: to convey general plan, strategies, and methodologies; to develop course structure and content for specific courses

Spring 2010

  • Evaluate summer research proposals and notify awardees.
  • Implement second round of pilot courses two to four at Samford; two to four at other institutions). Note: In this and subsequent semesters there could be more courses being offered than there were new faculty attending the previous training session due to continued involvement by faculty who have already participated.
  • Meet with faculty awarded summer research grants to clarify research objectives and conformity with project objectives and to discuss project evaluation strategies.
  • Recruit new faculty participants for fall 2010.

Summer 2010

  • Evaluate courses taught so far and refine pedagogy strategies, evaluation rubric, and workshop training methods.
  • Formalize and generalize “big questions” methodology for any science and math courses (employing sample approaches, etc.).
  • Produce draft version of materials for course and research duplication by institutions and individuals not participating in the pilot program.
  • Identify new courses for fall 2010 and obtain instructor commitment. Goal is four to six courses at Samford and four to six at other institutions (including participation of at least one new institution).
  • Conduct training workshop for new faculty participants.
  • Conduct summer research projects (framed by big questions)
  • Create project website.
  • Prepare and submit interim reports to the Teagle Foundation.

Fall 2010

  • Evaluate summer research projects.
  • Implement third round of pilot courses (four to six at Samford and four to six at other institutions).
  • Recruit new faculty participants for spring, 2011.
  • Identify new courses for spring 2011 and obtain instructor commitment. Goal is six to eight courses at Samford and six to eight at other institutions.
  • Present preliminary results at a conference.

January 2011*

  • Evaluate fall courses.
  • Refine teaching and research methods.
  • Update project website and materials.
  • Conduct training workshop for new faculty participants.

Spring 2011

  • Implement fourth round of pilot courses (6-8 at Samford and 6-8 at other institutions).
  • Finalize formal course methods and collect data on courses for use in dissemination of results.
  • Present results at a conference.

Summer 2011

  • Evaluate project and outline future plans.
  • Produce final version of materials for course and research duplication by institutions and individuals not participating in the pilot program.
  • Prepare and submit journal article.
  • Update project website.
  • Prepare and submit final reports to the Teagle Foundation.

* During each of the two years of the grant, several critical portions of the project will be performed during Samford University’s January mini-term.

Research Mini-Grant Project & Plans 

Practically any scientific or mathematical research agenda can be viewed from a big questions perspective with the results understood in terms of the big questions framing that research and with new insights into the big questions themselves. Besides increasing the inherent interest in the research (i.e., by helping to identify it as a potential component of a much larger picture), this approach can be utilized to help select between competing projects. It also opens up new publication possibilities for the researchers. With this in mind, a call for research proposals was issued in January 2010 to faculty at participating institutions and awards were announced at the end of March. Each funded project involves collaboration between at least one full-time faculty member and one student. Students were primarily undergraduates (although two were working on a masters degree). 

Implications of quantum physics and relativity for spontaneous emergent order as viewed through the lens of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics in process philosophy

Dr. Duane Pontius, Department of Physics, Birmingham Southern College
Ryan Melvin (physics, religion, philosophy major, Birmingham Southern College)

Big Question

How can interrelatedness be an essential property of an individual?

Research Question

What can modern physics and contemporary philosophy tell us about each other?

Project Summary

The hallmark of classical physics is reductionism, the separation of the object of investigation from everything else in the universe. While providing great insights, it has also highlighted the importance of connections among phenomena, which have often been disregarded for reasons of simplicity, ignorance, or convenience. Indeed, modern quantum physics clearly demonstrates the interconnectedness of what are classically treated as distinct objects. Present interpretation of the methods and results of quantum mechanics suffer from an outmoded metaphysics indicative of Aristotelian philosophy. In brief, particles are envisioned as discrete entities that interact directly or via the mediation of third parties, but interactions at a distance are prohibited. Hence any object is reducible to its constituents, be it a simple object, a human being, or even a work of art.

Quantum theory does not permit a clear intuitive description within the prevailing metaphysics and remains only a mathematical model that makes statistical predictions (albeit excellent ones!). The philosopher A. N. Whitehead observed that “scientific theory is outrunning common sense” and he sought to develop an alternative metaphysics that could provide a satisfactory resolution of this dilemma. His process philosophy, developed in parallel with J. Dewey’s theory of immediate empiricism, offers a new metaphysics wherein the conceptual difficulties of quantum mechanics might be better addressed. To wit, the connections among a collection of objects is not reducible to its individual parts, and their interrelatedness is as essential as their individuality. Hence, behavior can only be fully explained by analyzing aggregate manifestations. This thought is often captured in Whitehead’s phrase “The many become one and are increased by one.”

Our goal is to study how process philosophy can shed light on interpreting modern physics and vice versa. We do not envision any practical consequences for, say, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics. Rather, we seek to identify how a study of metaphysics can refine current conceptual models of quantum mechanics. Similarly, we will use well-established but counter-intuitive experimental results to illustrate the utility and value of various metaphysical approaches. These validated experiments provide a valuable crucible in which philosophical implications of interconnectedness can be studied. Once the importance of these connections is established in this limited context, broader implications can be explored.

Defining, mapping, and visualizing the health of a community

Dr. Brian Toone, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Samford University
Josh Moore (computer science major, Samford University)

Big Question

What is community health?

Research Question

How can the health of a community be defined, assessed, mapped, and visualized using the social media and Geographic Information System (GIS) tools available today?

Project Summary

How does one measure the health of a community? How does one track change over time to know if social programs, government policies, focused efforts, etc.…are making a difference in the health of a community? What social media tools can we identify to help members of the community connect with each other and those outside of the community who want to offer assistance? These are the specific questions we will be addressing as part of this research project.

(i) This project will be split into three major parts to be pursued concurrently:
(ii) Defining community health
(iii) Development of a framework for collecting and assessing community health data using social media tools
(iv) Creating a tool for mapping and visualizing collected data

Developing aesthetic measures for 3D head models

Dr. Marietta Cameron, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Birmingham Southern College
Reed Milewicz (computer science major, Birmingham Southern College)
Brandon Shewmake (computer science major, Birmingham Southern College)

Big Question

How do we make value (e.g., aesthetic) judgments? To what extent are these innate or acquired? How do such judgments impact our lives?

Research Question

Can we devise a goodness-of-fit function that measures the “visual aesthetics” of generated three-dimensional meshes?

Project Summary

In this project, we establish a working definition of aesthetics and explore the role aesthetics play in creativity. In a previous work, we developed a system that constructs new head models by randomly perturbing landmarks on a template model and shifting non-landmark points using a blend function based on thin-plate splines. We now seek to develop functions that measure the “visual aesthetics” of these generated models. In evaluating these functions, we compare our measures with the aesthetic evaluations from undergraduate students in art and psychology.

Impact of modern physics on the training and mindset of American ministers of religion

Dr. Tom Nordlund, Department of Physics, The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Philip Markham (Beeson Divinity School student, Samford University)

Big Question

What impact does basic understanding of the physical universe and its laws have on the preparation and mindset of students planning to become ministers in mainline American churches? Are formal religions and the physical sciences becoming more and more distant from each other even as their regimes of overlap increase?

Research Question

Does understanding and analysis based on principles of modern physics have any impact on the mindset and world view of future ministers of mainline religions (e.g., their understanding of God), or is this science irrelevant to their planned ministry to people?

Project Summary

The “Big Bang” picture of the universe and the quantum theory of microscopic matter has been taught in mainstream colleges and universities for 100 years. During the first four decades, the subject consisted of research and debate among professors of physics, chemistry and math and their graduate students. Though details are still undergoing vigorous discussion, the main features of modern physics have been taught to undergraduate science students of American universities since the 1950’s. The approach taught to such students attempts to explain how matter changes with time, subject to conserved quantities and usually described in terms of three spatial dimensions and a time dimension. Equations based on the principles predict the outcomes of certain events and experiments are designed to confirm or disprove the prediction. Experiment has often contradicted prediction, but the issue has usually been a faulty equation or assumption—e.g., ignorance of electron spin in an atom’s angular momentum—and not the principle itself (e.g., conservation of angular momentum). The quantum view of the micro-world and the cosmological view of the universe has had profound impact on attitudes and actions of physical scientists, as well as on society in general. Experiences, technology and devices derived from modern physics direct, if not dictate, our everyday lives.
The emerging mechanistic view of astronomy and cosmology had a profound impact on mainline religious leaders hundreds of years ago and, as a result, on the congregations they taught. Some church ministers were also numbered among the scientific elite. In contrast, quick surveys of training programs for 21st century, mainstream religious ministers does not reveal a significant scientific preparation for “religious” implications of modern physics, though the implications are many. Future ministers focus on history, literature, languages, speaking, managing, and counseling.

We hypothesize that the American science-religion “debate” remains inhibited, unproductive and unconnected to society in general because of the weak physical science requirements of seminaries and schools of theology. This project aims to measure the time, effort and importance attached to modern physics by students preparing for the ministry and their teachers. We will
(i) Search seminary and schools of theology websites, compiling physical science academic entrance and graduation requirements and related course syllabi.
(ii) Identify American centers for training in ministry and science, including Vatican (Catholic Church) centers.
(iii) Develop seminary student and faculty surveys that assesses physics/cosmology knowledge and understanding, interest and the considered importance of those areas to their careers or service.
(iv) Develop these data and tools for publication in scientific and religious education journals (e.g., The Physics Teacher, J. Sci. Stud. Relig., Christ. Today).

The need for social acceptance and the cost of social rejection

Dr. Stephen Chew, Department of Psychology, Samford University
Carolyn Gibson (psychology and history major, Samford University)

Big Question

Is a social nature essential to being a human?

Research Question

What happens when an individual is rejected from being part of a group?

Project Summary

“To be no part of any body is to be nothing” (John Donne).

What does rejection do to an individual? Donne believes lack of participation in a group makes an individual nothing; a group identity is wrapped up in identity as a human. Social identity is an important factor in one’s identification as a human. People live in family units, work in groups, and fight together against challenges. Humans are social animals, and that nature influences how they live in nearly every way. What happens when a person is prevented from social activity or from group acceptance? The current study seeks to understand the consequences of group rejection of an individual. By simulating rejection, this study seeks what emotional reactions and behaviors occur in the rejected individual.

College freshmen must make many adjustments in the transition to university life. In addition to being away from friends and family, they are in a completely new environment. Part of adjusting to that environment is becoming involved: making friends, participating in activities, and joining groups. The attachments made through these activities help freshmen to cope with being in a new environment.
This study will examine reactions of college freshmen and college seniors to rejection and acceptance. Primacy will be examined to see if it has an effect on the strength of the rejection. Rejected individuals are expected to experience aggression and the desire to retaliate against their rejecter. Freshmen are expected to feel greater rejection because college is a relatively new environment in which they are still finding their place.

University students will be evaluated on their responses to being told that they are being considered for membership in two groups. Seniors and freshmen will be randomly assigned to one of four possible group acceptance conditions (acceptance by both groups, rejection by both groups, acceptance first then rejection, or rejection first then acceptance). Individuals will then fill out a survey measuring self-esteem, level of desire to belong in either organization, level of frustration with acceptance or rejection, sense of helplessness, and liking for the people who accepted or rejected them. Participants will be fully debriefed after completing the experiment.

An evaluation of the distribution of human health risks across socioeconomic status: Alabama—a case study

Dr. Ron Hunsinger, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Samford University
Ben Meadows (environmental science masters student)

Big Question

What Empirical Findings Can Be Used to Better Understand Poverty?

Research Question

How do various indices of poverty contribute to human health risks?  What are the correlations? Which contribute the most? The least?

Project Summary

In 2004, the World Health Organization raised the question concerning how human health risk factors are distributed across socioeconomic status, both at national and local levels (WHO, Poverty, 2004). Many studies are needed to fully address this issue, which we propose is related to the bigger question of “How Can We Better Characterize the Risks of Poverty Using Empirical Research?” In this proposed study, we will examine the case of Alabama and its wide social strata and known high rates of human health problems. Specifically, we will analyze the mortality rates for four leading indicators of health problems, i.e., cardiovascular disease (heart attack plus stroke), diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer. These mortality rates will be taken from epidemiology data bases maintained by the Alabama State Department of Health for the three economically poorest-, three median- and three highest-ranked counties in Alabama. Socioeconomic data from these selected counties will be obtained from the state health department’s vital statistics records and from the US Census Bureau files. Annual rates and data for these indices will be taken for the last ten years or for whatever period of time is accessible in the records. Indices of poverty are likely to include median household income, per capita income, sex, race, education level, patients per physician in the county and environmental pollutant contributions as indicated by EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) for the comparable periods of time.  Alabama presents itself ironically as a perfect fit. With the fastest growing metropolitan county in the United States (Shelby) that has been bestowed with developmental riches, and the very poor and ill-affected Black Belt, representing some of the poorest counties in the nation, we feel that Alabama makes an excellent model to study.

Using the Alabama Department of Health Statistics, County Profiles, in combination with County Socio-Economic data from the Census, we will analyze the relations among the mortality rates of cardiovascular disease (heart attack plus stroke), diabetes, breast cancer and prostate cancer in the three richest, three median, and three poorest counties in Alabama and the socioeconomic demographics of each region. We will analyze our data using multiple linear regression approaches for each of the four health factors at each county stratification (poor, median and wealthiest) using the various socioeconomic indicators as independent variables.