FASTLY - Faith & Science Teaching

Activity Map: Models, Humility, and Truth

Overview

What's the Focus

Sometimes arguments about the relationship between faith and science fall into proclaiming the absolute truth of one side, and the deep unreliability of its opposite. Such dismissals in either direction can quickly end up misrepresenting how science or theology, or both, work.

This Activity Map introduces students to the role of models in scientific and religious thinking, and engages them in exploring how commitment to truth might go alongside an awareness of the need for humility.

This Activity Map offers a selection of activities intended for both Bible and science classes, creating opportunities for collaboration across the curriculum for teachers, and more coherent learning for students. It aims to help students see the relationship between the Bible and science as calling for humble investigation and careful thought, not as just contending a few key positions. It tries to engage them in thinking carefully about truth and humility.

It is not necessary to use every activity in your class. The Activity Map is intended to offer a range of possibilities to enrich your existing teaching resources. While some of the activities form a possible sequence, you can select the ones most suitable for your context and adapt them to connect to your own plan for learning.

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic, which are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

You can mix and match these activities as you wish. It is not intended that all of them should be used with the same class.

Quick Stop Lesson Plan

The best way to use this Activity Map is to explore all of the activities and see which ones best fit together in your particular teaching context. If you just need a quick lesson outline, you can use the links below to preview and download a lesson plan based on activities selected from this Activity Map.

PreviewDownload Files

Discover Activities

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic, which are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

  • Activity

    5 min

    Beliefs about Knowledge

  • Activity

    10 min

    Seeing in Part

  • Activity

    20 min

    Models in Science

  • Activity

    15 min

    Models in Scripture

Beliefs about Knowledge

In Brief

This is a short introductory activity intended to enable students to articulate their initial assumptions about scientific and theological knowledge, prior to learning about the role of models in scientific and theological thought. Students will fill in a short questionnaire on their beliefs about knowledge.

Goals

Students will create a record of some of their assumptions about the nature of scientific and theological knowledge.

Thinking Ahead

Conversations about faith and science are not helped by misconceptions about the nature of scientific or theological claims. These misconceptions surface in notions such as the idea that something that is “just a theory” has no weight, that an idea must be “proved” before it is taken seriously, that only literal claims about the world can be factual, or that science changes, but theology does not.

This activity creates space for students to articulate their initial assumptions, creating a checkpoint for later comparison. Be sure to frame this activity in a way that does not imply judgment of students’ ideas (avoid strolling around and smirking, frowning at things you see on students’ papers, or hovering over students as they write), as the goal here is simply for them to record their own thoughts.

Related Book Review: Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion by Ronald L. Numbers

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Explain to students that this activity is not a test, and that you will not assess their answers. Explain that the purpose of recording their answers is so that they will have a record of their current assumptions to look back on after further study, so they can see whether any of their assumptions have changed.

Give students a copy of Beliefs About Knowledge, and ask them to fill it out in silence. You could ask students either to keep their sheets safe for future reference, or have them add their names and turn them in. (The latter strategy may allow you to glean insights into the most common viewpoints and misconceptions in your class, and to plan your emphases accordingly.)

Seeing in Part

In Brief

This is a brief introductory activity intended to establish the general idea of models as partial representations in preparation for learning about models in science and theology. Students will look at slides of models and begin a discussion on their properties and applications.

Goals

Students will understand that models offer partial representations of reality that do not correspond to reality in all of its aspects.

Thinking Ahead

Conversations about faith and science are not helped by misconceptions about the nature of scientific or theological claims. These misconceptions surface in notions such as the idea that something that is “just a theory” has no weight, that an idea must be “proved” before it is taken seriously, or that only literal claims about the world can be factual.

The activities in this Activity Map explore the role of modeling in our thinking about both God and the natural world. This modeling is only part of the nature of science; to explore the nature of theories and theory construction, you will need to draw from your regular curriculum.

The idea of models as representing something real, while being only partial representations, is introduced here. Realizing the role of models in our thinking can be a step toward students’ seeing how provisional accounts of reality can nonetheless be useful, and how to exercise proper humility in relation to knowledge claims.

Related Book Review: Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society by Bruno Latour

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Orient students by telling them that they are going to be thinking about the nature of scientific and theological claims to truth. In order to do so, it is important to think about how we use models to represent and understand the world.

Show the first slide in Introducing Models, and ask students what they see. Ask for answers from several different students. Elicit that it would be valid to say that it is a car, or a model car. Say that we are going to think about the relationship between a model and the reality it represents, because models play an important role in scientific and theological thinking.

Ask students first to identify what the model car has in common with a real car (e.g., Is it the same shape? Does it have wheels?). Then ask them to identify what it does not have in common with a real car (e.g., real cars have engines, can be driven, are made of different materials, etc.). Ask if it is a problem that we call this a model car if it is, in fact, not like a car in all kinds of ways.

In fact, we do not have a problem with this; models do not have to replicate all details of what they represent. Models focus on key details: the ones important for the purposes of the model. (You could ask students if it would be okay for a model car to have no wheels or no car-shaped chassis, but to share with a car the qualities of being very heavy and expensive. The answer is no, because these are not the most relevant features for the purposes of a model car).

Establish that the important features are those relevant to the purpose of the model. Some models will attempt to be much more detailed and faithful to the original than others, yet a model will never quite be the real thing.

Repeat this exercise more briefly with the second and third slides. The second slide is similar to the first, but with a plane. The third moves a step closer to models used in science, as it shows a small globe (a model of the earth). In conclusion, mention that these are all physical models, but that we can also use mental models to understand the world, and that these will be explored later.

Conclude by telling students that comprehending both scientific and theological claims involves being aware of how we use models to help us represent the world. This understanding can help us avoid claiming too much or too little for a scientific or theological claim.

Models in Science

In Brief

This short introductory activity engages students in reflection on how basic scientific models relate to reality. It parallels similar reflection on theological models in the activity Models in Scripture. Students will look at slides of scientific models and discuss how they may have developed, how they may have changed over time, and their relevance to what they represent.

Goals

Students will understand how models are used in science to account for data for specific purposes.

Students will understand that scientific models have explanatory power and are subject to revision.

Thinking Ahead

Models utilize one part of our experience as a kind of scaffolding to help us understand another. They are a standard feature of our thinking in the fields of science and theology. In both, models help us gain a better grasp of the nature of reality, while reminding us that there are limits to our understanding, and that humility is appropriate.

We see the world through models. This means that we do see the world, and that we see it in an indirect way that is mediated by models.

The activity Seeing in Part introduced the idea of models; this activity introduces the idea of models in science (while the activity Models in Scripture offers parallel reflection in relation to theology). Modeling is only part of the nature of science; to explore the nature of theories and theory construction, you will need to draw from your regular curriculum.

Consider whether to use both activities in the same class, or in collaboration between the science and Bible teachers. Think about how to help students see the connections between the two activities.

Related Book Review: Science & Theology: An Introduction by J. C. Polkinghorne

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Show the first slide from Models in Science, which depicts two images of the night sky.

Ask students what they would see if they looked carefully at the night sky each night over a long period of time, either with the naked eye or with a simple telescope, and kept a record. Elicit possibilities that include changes in shape (phases of the moon), changes in position (movement of constellations), visible movement (meteors), and repetition of patterns over time.

Then ask students to try to imagine that they have never seen a movie that is set in space, have never seen a photograph taken in space, and have never heard of anyone flying up into space.

  • What kinds of questions might they ask themselves as they watched the lights in the sky at night move?
  • What would need to be explained?

Elicit that we might look for patterns in the movement, and wonder if we could use them to predict future cosmic events (such as eclipses). We might look for a way of explaining how all the moving pieces fit together. Ask students to discuss briefly with a partner how we might go about arriving at a theory of how all the data fit together.

Next, present the second slide, and ask students what they think it shows. Explain that it is an image of the solar system from the astronomy article in the first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica from 1771, showing the apparent movement of the Sun, Mercury, and Venus, relative to the earth. It offers a model that explains the movement of the objects in the night sky. Ask students to identify the key assumption on which it is built—that the earth is in the center. Point out the epicycles—the repeating loops. Explain that if the earth was placed in the center, then to account for the observed movements of the stars and planets, it was necessary to model them as moving in repeating loops. Emphasize that this model represents the movement as we see it from earth.

Now, show the third slide. Point out that we would need to explain why the planets seemed to move in such a curious pattern. Mention that Aristotle’s physics assumed that objects in the sky should move in perfect circles, which would make the actually observed movements even more puzzling.

Ask students if they can figure out from the new diagram how movement in perfect circles could produce the loops in the previous diagram. Explain, as needed, the idea that the planet is moving in a small perfect circle, while the center of that circle is moving in a larger perfect circle around the earth. From the vantage point of earth, this would look like the loops in the previous picture. You can illustrate this in motion by showing one of the animations of Ptolemy’s system available online, such as Ptolemaic Planetary Model or Ptolemy’s Solar Hypotheses. Emphasize that this model is intended to represent the actual motion of the planets, not just their progress across the observed night sky.

Finally, show the heliocentric model on the fourth slide. Ask students why they think this model replaced the previous models. As students make suggestions, point out that the new model was not immediately more successful at predicting the movement of objects in the heavens—the old one worked quite well for that purpose. However, the new model was more elegant; as we began to develop better telescopes, collect more accurate observational data, and develop better mathematical models of the movement of planets, it gradually became apparent that it fit more of the data than the old model. It also fit better with other new developments, for instance, our understanding of gravity. Eventually, it proved more accurate and more useful in accounting for more data.

Remind students that all of these are models: constructed representations that allow us to picture some part of reality in order to continue to study it more accurately. All of them were useful for particular purposes, but they were also subject to change. Ask the class to reflect together on what this might imply for how we see scientific knowledge. Focus in particular on the questions:

  • What do models help us do?
  • If something is just a model or a theory, does that mean it is not scientific? Does it mean we cannot have any confidence in what it says? (Emphasize that models are a way of accounting for data.)
  • How fixed are scientific facts? Is there always potential for a change in our model? What might bring change?
  • How might humility fit into this picture? (Note the need to be open to change in our own assumed models of the world.)

Models in Scripture

In Brief

This is a short starter activity intended to introduce the idea of models as part of how we think about God and to engage students in some initial reflection on truth and humility. Students will look at passages in the Bible and will examine ways in which God is modeled in the text.

Goals

Students will understand that the Bible offers multiple overlapping models for God, and that each alone has limitations.

Students will reflect on how models both enable access to true knowledge and invite humility.

Thinking Ahead

Models utilize one part of our experience as a kind of scaffolding to help us understand another. They are a standard feature of our thinking in the fields of science and theology. In both, models help us gain a better grasp on the nature of reality, and also remind us that there are limits to our understanding and humility is appropriate.

We see the world through models. This means that we do see the world, and that we see it in an indirect way that is mediated by models. There are aspects of our models that can turn out to be useful and aspects that are not so useful.

The activity Seeing in Part introduced the idea of models. The activity Models in Science introduced the use of models in science. Now this activity carries out the same task in relation to theology.

Consider whether to use both activities in the same class, or in collaboration between the science and Bible teachers. Think about how to help students see the connections between the two activities. As you work through the brainstorming part of the activity, notice how having the papers circulate creates a different dynamic in terms of continuing engagement, and the increasing difficulty of adding new words, compared with just having the groups brainstorm about all three words.

Think about other contexts where you could use these practices of rapid sharing of results and building on others’ work to enhance engagement.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Put students into groups of three. Give each group three sheets of paper, and have each student take one sheet.

Tell students that each group member should write one word at the top of his or her sheet: one should write “King,” one should write “Rock,” and one should write “Bread.”

Once students have done this, tell them that they have two minutes, working individually, to write down as many properties of the item named on their sheet as possible. For example, if their sheet says “King,” they might write “rich” or “owns a palace”; if it says “Rock,” they might write “heavy” or “used in landscaping”; if it says “Bread,” they might write “comes with meals.”

After two minutes, signal a pause (e.g., by clapping), and ask students to pass their sheet to the group member to their left, who now has two minutes to add as many additional ideas to that sheet as he or she can. Repeat this once more, so that each student has worked on each sheet, and then allow a couple of minutes for the group to compare notes.

Display 1 Samuel 2:2 on the first slide of Models in Scripture.

Ask the class to call out any properties of rocks that are mentioned on their sheets that seem to be good ways to describe God. After collecting these, ask for any properties of rocks mentioned on their sheets that do not seem like appropriate ways of describing God. (For example, the biblical imagery of God as a rock invites us to think of God as dependable over very long periods of time and a place of security, but not as difficult to lift up or useful for making walls.)

Repeat this procedure with each of the remaining two verses on the slide: Psalm 18:46 (God as king) and John 6:33 (God as bread). Each will have properties that carry over and others that do not. Highlight not only examples that clearly fit or do not fit, but also any suggestions that are debatable—where it is perhaps not immediately clear whether they might be a legitimate part of the intended picture of God or not.

Ask students why the Bible uses metaphors like these to provide ways of thinking about God, when God is not literally a king, a rock, or a loaf of bread. (Answers here may include: that the Bible writes in everyday and often poetic language, and such terms are more vivid and evocative than abstract theological words; that the Bible seeks for us to learn what God is like, and offers us pictures that can help us get a glimpse of a God who is beyond human categories and experience; that each metaphor encourages us to meditate on particular aspects of God’s character.)

Ask which of these three metaphors can be extended the least and which can be extended the most. Or, which offers a more narrow or singular truth about God, and which can be extended in more expansive ways into a model for thinking about God and God’s behavior towards us, that is a complex one for understanding God. (For example, it seems that God as king offers a more extensive model for thinking about God than God as rock.)

Ask why there are multiple models:

  • Why not just settle for one of them?
  • What would we miss if we only thought about God as rock and not as bread, or vice versa?

Focus on how the models limit one another:

  • How might we go astray if we only used the image of God as rock to understand God, without that picture ever being limited by the need to also think of God as king?
  • What if we thought of God only as king, and not as father, friend, or shepherd?
  • Could we go wrong even with a true model, if we were too fixated on the one model?

Display the second slide, which shows Deuteronomy 32:18 (NET):

You have forgotten the Rock who fathered you, and put out of mind the God who gave you birth.

Ask students how many images or implied models for God appear in this one sentence (rock, father, mother in childbirth) and what we should make of this kind of talk.

  • Is it just confused, mixing its metaphors? Or is it straining to speak rich truths about God that can’t be captured as well in a simpler image?
  • Why might we expect talking about God to require multiple, rich models?

Finally, explain that this activity is an illustration of how we use mental models to gain understanding, and that, in this sense, it is very much like what we explored in the previous activity regarding scientific understanding. Point out that a model is not the same as what it describes; it has limits and does not give us a perfect picture. Simultaneously, it offers a way of grasping reality—a way of thinking about something that gives us understanding. It enables us to see, and it is only one way to see.

Ask students to write a brief reflection on how thinking with models can help us develop a more confident understanding and how it can teach us humility.

Delve Activities

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

  • Activity

    35 min

    At the Well

  • Activity

    30 min

    Models of Adam & Eve

  • Activity

    25 min

    Candle

  • Activity

    20 min

    Pop Can Implosion

  • Activity

    20 min

    Observations, Inferences, Models

At the Well

In Brief

This Bible class activity1 engages students in examining how different mental models of the causes of people’s behavior lead to different interpretations of John 4. This offers a way into learning about the role of mental models in interpretation, and how interpretation affects theology as well as science. Students will read a passage from John 4 and compare interpretations of it based upon different models.

Goals

Students will understand that mental models of how the world works affect our interpretation of Scripture.

Students will reflect on how mental models relate to humility and trust.

Thinking Ahead

Models utilize one part of our experience as a kind of scaffolding to help us understand another. They are a standard feature of our thinking in the fields of science and theology. Realizing that they play a role in both can help to defuse a sense of tension between the two. In both, models help us gain a better grasp of the nature of reality, while reminding us that there are limits to our understanding, and that humility is appropriate.

We see the world through models. This means that we do see the world, and that we see it in an indirect way that is mediated by models.

This activity explores how the role of models affects our reading of Scripture. There are two risks here: one is that we will mistakenly exalt our own interpretations to the status of absolute truth and despise those who read differently, and the other is that we will lapse into an apathetic sense that the Bible can be made to say anything at all, and so we are not answerable to the text.

As you prepare this activity, think carefully about how to keep the emphasis on how the role of models in thinking calls for humility and offers us real access to understanding.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Tell students that they are going to look further into the ways that mental models play a role in how we make sense of what we think we know, and that they will do this through interpretation of a Bible passage.

Assign students to read John 4:4-26 from the New Testament, either from the Bible or from the provided handout, At the Well. Have students read through the passage silently; then have them read it aloud in pairs, so that they are familiar with the flow of the passage.

Next, ask students if they can identify any places in the conversation where either Jesus or the Samaritan woman seems to suddenly change the topic of conversation to something new. Give students a few moments working in pairs to identify these and then take suggestions. Draw students’ attention to verse 16 (Jesus and the woman have been talking about water and drinking, and Jesus suddenly says “Go call your husband”) and verses 19-20 (they have been talking about her husbands, and she suddenly starts talking about where to worship). Help students see that these seem like surprising shifts—ask them to imagine a conversation that goes:

“Are you thirsty? Would you like a coffee?”

“Sure, let’s get a coffee.”

“Go get your husband!”

“But he’s at work.”

“I know he is. He works long hours.”

“Should I worship in a Protestant church or a Catholic one?”

You could mention that John’s Gospel uses such sudden shifts and apparent misunderstandings in other places (e.g., Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus). In order to understand this passage, we need to arrive at a model of the situation, and of the intended logic of the text, that lets us make sense of the data in front of us, the sequence of the topics. Ask students to discuss with their partners the following three questions:

  1. Why does Jesus suddenly change the topic to husbands when the woman asks for living water?
  2. Why does the woman suddenly change the topic to temples when Jesus mentions her past husbands?
  3. What can you tell about the woman’s character from the story? What kind of person is she?

When students have had time to discuss, show the first slide of At the Well. This slide contains a number of short phrases drawn from published Bible commentaries on John 4. Ask students whether this interpretation is similar to what they concluded. (It may or may not be.) Ask them why the last sentence would claim that it is “obvious” that Jesus wants to reform the woman’s life—what in the text would support that conclusion? Do not, at this point, critique students’ interpretations, and if they arrive at something different from the commentaries, that is fine.

Next, tell students they are going to step back from the story for a moment and think about some of the assumptions we use to make sense of what is happening.

Show the second slide of At the Well, an image of people helping push a car. Ask students to imagine they are walking along a street, and see someone whose car has broken down. They see several other people stop and help the driver by pushing the car to a safe place. Ask them to tell a partner how they would answer the question “Why do you think those people stopped to help?”

Show the third slide, which shows two different kinds of explanations, and ask students which explanation theirs most resembled. Show the explanatory text that points out that the first is an internal explanation (i.e., they helped because of some quality inside them; they were good people) and the second is a contextual explanation (i.e., they helped because something in the situation pushed them to help).

Explain to students that research in cross-cultural psychology suggests that:

  • On average, Western people, who have grown up in a culture that stresses individual responsibility and self-reliance, instinctively lean towards internal explanations of others’ behavior. They tend to assume that people behave as they do because they are moral or immoral.
  • On average, Asian people, who have grown up in a culture that stresses communal belonging and interdependence, instinctively lean towards contextual explanations of others’ behavior. They tend to assume that people behave as they do because of the constraints of their contexts.

These are just averages—there are individual variations in both cultures. This difference is referred to as a “causal attribution difference.” Due to the mental models of behavior instilled by our cultures, we attribute causes to events a little differently.

Now show students Slide 4 (a repeat of Slide 1) and point out that these comments are from Western Bible commentators. Ask students to identify evidence of a preference for internal explanations.

Tell them that a recent American author wrote a book (In the Land of Blue Burqas by Kate McCord, Moody Publishers, 2012; see page 305) about spending time among poor women in Afghanistan. This author describes how these women reacted to the story from John 4. It was immediately obvious to them what was going on in the story.

Use Slide 5 to show the main points2:

  • The woman would not have been able to choose whom to marry or whether to marry.
  • She has been used and abandoned by five men, and the one she is with now does not even have the decency to marry her.
  • As a result, she is deeply shamed in her community, which is why she is at the well alone in the middle of the day, instead of with the other women.
  • Because of her shame, she cannot go to the places of public worship.
  • Jesus tells her that she can still worship God, that she does not have to be at one of the temples, and that God can meet her where she is. This is good news!

Remind students that they have been learning about the role of models in science and theology. Ask them to articulate what role mental models have played in interpreting this passage. Which of the interpretations shown on Slide 4 and Slide 5 are straightforward observations of what the text says, and which are inferences based on prior models of how the world works? A mental model of the causes of human behavior has led to two different interpretations seeming obvious to two different sets of readers.

Ask students if this means the text has no meaning or can mean anything at all. Surely not. If students want to pursue this line of thought, ask them if this interpretation could be justified from the text: Jesus mentions husbands because he wants to fight her husband and wonders how many men he will have to fight; she mentions temples because they have boxing rings in them, and “worship” really means “buy popcorn.”

Though we use models to interpret, we are still accountable to the text. We come to the text with mental models of how the world works that affect how we interpret it, and then we test those models against the text and any other relevant information, such as historical research on ancient Samaritan culture. Sometimes we may have to keep more than one model in play until we have more information, but we are still ultimately answerable to the text.

Remind students that there are commonalities between the two readings of John 4. Jesus was offering mercy and good news and a fresh relationship with God, and the woman needed to be freed in order to receive it. Also emphasize that if we had no mental models at all, we would have no idea how to read the text—having a mental model gives us access to the story, even as we need to remain open to having our model corrected by further reading.

Finally, ask students to write a brief reflective journal on the following prompt:

  • Why might there be a need for humility with regard to our interpretations of Scripture? Is this incompatible with understanding and trusting Scripture?

 

1This activity draws heavily upon material from Christians and Cultural Difference by David I. Smith and Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim, Calvin College Press, 2016. Used by permission.

2Paraphrases for this slide drawn from In the Land of Blue Burqas by Kate McCord, Moody Publishers, 2012. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.

Models of Adam & Eve

In Brief

This academically challenging activity is an adaptation of one also used in the Activity Map on The Drama of Creation. It looks at differences in interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 in the early church. It helps students see that there have always been models involved in interpreting Scripture. It asks them to think about the implications of this, not only in terms of truth, but also in terms of how we respond to those with whom we disagree. Teaching FASTly includes both seeking truth and engaging graciously with differences. Students will look at passages from Augustine and Irenaeus and explore the differences and similarities between the two.

Goals

Students will understand that the Genesis creation account was interpreted using different representational models in the early church.

Students will reflect on how to respond to diversity in interpretation.

Thinking Ahead

Many of us in the West are raised with the implicit understanding that there is one model for understanding the creation and fall of humanity, and it was provided by St. Augustine. Particularly regarding Adam and Eve, Augustine understood this first couple to be fully mature in their spirituality, completely upright before God, and created wholly righteous before falling into sin and losing this original state of “perfection.”

However, the early church fathers did not always agree on how best to interpret Genesis 1-3 and other passages regarding creation and Adam and Eve. While all did emphasize that God the Father is “maker of heaven and earth,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, their view of how to interpret Scripture’s account of this event and the fall of Adam and Eve was varied.

This activity examines Augustine’s understanding of Adam and Eve alongside that of Irenaeus, which later influenced Eastern Orthodox perspectives about the first couple and their fall.

Related Book Review: Four Views on the Historical Adam by Denis O. Lamoureux, John H. Walton, C. John Collins, William D. Barrick, Gregory A. Boyd, Philip G. Ryken

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Review with students the role of models in understanding, as discussed in previous activities. Thinking about our mental models is important. It encourages us to be humble—our models might lead us to distort what we are seeing to make it fit our ideas. This type of thinking also calls us to a trusting process of seeking truth—without models to help us make sense of the text, we would not get far. Models help us see what is there to be seen, and their fallibility can keep us paying close attention to the text to see if they still function.

Tell students that they will engage in examining specific theological resources from the early church, with a focus on how models are involved in interpretation.

To begin this activity, take a poll of students on the question of Adam and Eve’s age—how old do students think they were in the Garden of Eden? If students are familiar with Sunday school picture-book depictions of Adam and Eve, as well as the description of their marriage in Genesis 2, answers will probably reinforce Augustine’s reading of Adam and Eve as mature adults.

Present students with the handout Adam and Eve, which contains sections of Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis1 and Irenaeus’s Against Heresies2. Each highlights the respective theologian’s differing views of the spiritual maturity of Adam and Eve, and thus the reasons for their fall. Note that for Augustine, “literal” did not mean reading the text literally, as many might understand it today, but was related to attending closely to the letter of the text.

Have students silently read the text, looking for similarities and differences between the two understandings presented. Emphasize the practice of careful reading and respect for the details of the text. Ask students to:

  • Circle text where there are differences between the two writers. (A key difference is Irenaeus’s view of Adam and Eve as child-like in their innocence, versus the Augustinian adult-like Adam and Eve.)
  • Underline details that are highlighted by both Augustine and Irenaeus.

After this time of silent reading, read Genesis 1:26-3:12 aloud, and then spend some time on three areas of discussion:

  • Comparing viewpoints:
    • What is shared and what is different? Draw out that Augustine focuses on how Adam, being made strong and perfect, could sin, while Irenaeus sees Adam as weak and immature, and growing toward a future perfection. Ask students to point to where this difference shows in the text.
    • Why are the two views different? What assumptions does each writer bring to the text? What model does each use to make sense of the text?
    • Which of the two views do you find more compelling? Why?
    • Is one of the views obviously wrong because of some easy-to-spot detail in the text?
  • Relationship to the text:
    • Does the existence of different interpretations of key biblical passages and doctrines mean that “anything goes?” Draw students’ attention to how both Augustine and Irenaeus are constrained by the text; they are both trying to test their model against what the text actually says. There is a reality outside their model, to which they are accountable.
  • Augustine argued that any interpretation of Scripture should build up faith, hope, and love:
    • Do either of these interpretations succeed or fail at this?
    • What might it mean to respond with faith, hope, and love to someone whose interpretation we disagree with?
    • Do you know or encounter people who have a different view of the creation story from yours? Does the way you view and respond to them reflect faith, hope, and love?

 

1Augustine excerpts from The Literal Meaning of Genesis, from Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, edited by Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas C. Lawler, translated by John H. Taylor, Copyright © 1982 by The Newman Press. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, N.J. Used with permission of Paulist Press. www.paulistpress.com

2Irenaeus of Lyons excerpts from Against Heresies, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.txt, text in the public domain.

Candle

In Brief

This activity1 engages students in interpreting a “discrepant event” and distinguishing their observations from their inferences. It helps students see how scientific models can be based on observation, yet still be tentative and open to revision. Students will witness the teacher lighting a “candle,” and evaluate the differences between observations and inferences.

Goals

Students will be able to distinguish observations from inferences.

Students will examine how making inferences based on observations helps to show the ways that scientific knowledge models reality.

Thinking Ahead

As we have seen in the previous activities in this map, models are a standard feature of our thinking in the fields of science and theology. Models utilize one part of our experience as a kind of scaffolding to help us understand another.

Understanding the role of models in our thinking can help us consider the relationship of our knowledge claims to humility and trust. Models are just representations and can be revised, so our claims to know should be framed in humility. We should not claim more for them than they warrant. Since our models are based on encounters with reality, we can trust them, at least provisionally, to help us see what is there. Acknowledging that they are provisional need not plunge us into despair about our ability to know truth.

We see the world through models. This means that we do see the world, and that we see it in an indirect way that is mediated by models.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • A package of white cheese sticks (string cheese)

  • A package of almond slivers (not slices)

  • Multi-purpose lighter (Aim-n-flame) or matches

  • A fire extinguisher or a cup of water

  • Presentation slides in Candle

Directions:

Just before the lesson commences, prepare the “candle” by opening a cheese stick and inserting an almond sliver into the tip. Insert enough of the almond sliver so that a small portion of the sliver protrudes out of the cheese stick. This sliver acts as a wick in the false candle. You may want to light the “wick” for a brief time, as this makes it easier to ignite during the lesson itself. Prepping two different “candles” is helpful, in case one unexpectedly fails. The students should not see the “candle” until the lesson takes place, so hide it until after you have described to the class what you want them to do as part of the demonstration.

Teaching the Activity

Open the lesson by giving some basic directions to the class. Tell them that in just a moment, students will be shown a “phenomenon,” and as soon as they can see it, they should share what they notice about the “phenomenon.” Select a student to keep a record of observations shared by the class. You may want the student to keep a record of the class’s observations where all can see (e.g., a large whiteboard). The person recording observations should not make any interpretations of what is shared, but just capture what is volunteered by the class. Encourage the class to share observations as soon as they come to mind. A number of comments should be shared in a relatively short period of time.

When ready for the demonstration, go ahead and light one of the “candles.”

As soon as the oil in the almond sliver starts to burn, hold the “candle” for all to see, and tell students to share their observations. They often share observations like “light,” “burning,” “smoke,” “wax,” “wax melting,” and perhaps, “candle.”

After several observations are shared (and right around the time the “candle” looks to be burning out), blow out the “candle,” and ask a couple of follow-up questions:

  • Predict what you think is going to happen over time. (Answers might include: “the candle is going to shrink” or “you’re going to get wax on your hand.”)
  • When would you most likely use such a phenomenon? (Answers might include: “when the power goes out” or “at night.”)

The next step in the demonstration should be a dramatic one.

Ask students to put their eyes on you, and ask them if they have ever seen this phenomenon used in the following way: blow out the “candle,” if it is still burning, and with theatrical flair take a big bite out of it!

Enjoy the audience’s shocked reaction as you chew a couple of bites! Students immediately wonder what you just ate. You may have to tear apart the string cheese in order to convince the audience that you did not just eat a wax candle.

Next, move to a careful presentation of the distinctions between observations and inferences. An observation is often described as a careful description of an object or event based on information gained using a person’s five senses, such as hearing, smelling, or touching. Properties you could observe include: height, weight, color, sound, shape, smell, and amount. Examples of observations (included for optional presentation on a slide in Candle) include:

  • The leaves on this tree are green in August.
  • This apple is crunchy and sweet.
  • Tonight’s dinner smells like baked meat loaf.
  • Crystal’s hair is shorter than Annie’s hair.
  • The red car crossed the finish line before the blue car.

Notice how each statement above does not include attempts to explain why or how. For instance, consider a change to the first statement. What if the statement read something like, “The leaves on the tree are green in August because of the presence of a green pigment called chlorophyll in the chloroplasts of certain cells”?

When interpreting or drawing a conclusion based on information gained through a person’s senses, the statement is an inference, rather than an observation.

Inference examples are included on the second slide in Candle.

  • What was really observed in the edible candle demonstration?
  • Where were we (likely unknowingly) drawing inferences?

Return to the recorder’s list of student comments (an example is shown in Slide 3 of Candle). This list typically contains comments like:

  • Smoking
  • Fire
  • Burning
  • Wax dripping
  • Wax melting
  • White object
  • Cylindrical
  • Wick at the top
  • Candle

Work through this list with students, discussing where inferences were made, rather than pure observations. For instance, “wax dripping” or “melting” are claims as to the identity of the object, and thus, are inferences based on the object appearing to be a candle. Similarly, “smoke” is really an inference and not a pure observation. An observation would be something like, “I observed fine, gray particles originating from the top of the white object moving steadily upward toward the ceiling.” You could infer that this phenomenon is smoke, not steam.

To further practice the distinction between observations and inferences, use the included practice problems (Slide 4 of Candle). Help students see the difference between observation (e.g., “it is a blue object; there are black marks on the white surface”) and inference (e.g., “it is a blueberry; there are letters”).

Then ask students to write in their own words how they would distinguish between an observation and an inference. Ask them to provide three different pairs of examples showing an observation (e.g., “the pointed object leaves an inky line when dragged along the white paper”) versus an inference (e.g., “the object is a felt-tip pen”). It may be helpful to have pairs of students look at each other’s work to double-check the sets of examples.

In closing, use the questions on Slide 5 of Candle to discuss the following issues with students.

In everyday life, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need to distinguish between an observation and inference, but in science, this careful distinction is helpful. As evidenced in the “edible candle” demonstration, this is challenging to do. We thought we were making observations, but we were mostly making inferences. There is really no such thing as a pure observation. There always seems to be a little inference in all of our observations:

  • Do we really see an object or is it an illusion?
  • Is it really blue or are we just offering a culturally specific term for our sense of how the light strikes it?

This activity helps us understand why all scientific models (and theories) are best viewed as just that: models. They move from observation to attempting to make sense of observation by building models. Models are durable, but always pending, and best viewed as subject to revision.

Some might fear scientific models are useless, given any sort of tentativeness or lack of complete certainty. Others would claim that you could not treat scientific knowledge with integrity unless you accurately understand science as model-making. Use the questions to help students see that admitting that inferences and models are tentative and open to revision does not mean giving up on truth, but respecting it. It is seeing that there is a reality to which our models are answerable, but that we should not claim too much for our models of it. Knowing the truth requires that we cultivate the humility needed to give up familiar half-truths. This important distinction is further presented in the activities Pop Can Implosion and Observations, Inferences, Models.

 

1This activity is adapted by its author from copyrighted material in Learning & Teaching Scientific Inquiry: Research and Applications by James Jadrich and Crystal Bruxvoort (NSTA Press, 2011). Used by permission.

Pop Can Implosion

In Brief

This is an activity1 intended to dive deeper still into the distinctions between observations and inferences. These distinctions are explored via a common classroom demonstration, where a pop can suddenly implodes, which helps students see how this relates to humility.

Goals

Students will distinguish observations from inferences.

Students will examine the degree of certainty we often associate with observations versus inferences.

Students will consider the consequences (e.g., false certainty) of mistaking our inferences for observations.

Thinking Ahead

Understanding the role of models in our thinking can help us consider the relationship of our knowledge claims to both humility and trust. Models are just representations and can be revised, so our claims to know should be framed in humility. We should not claim more for them than they warrant. Since our models are based on encounters with reality, we can trust them, at least provisionally, to help us see what is there. Acknowledging that they are provisional need not plunge us into despair about our ability to know truth.

The need to practice humility is particularly clear when something that we had taken to be obviously true is challenged, and we have to consider whether we assumed too much. This activity uses a combination of drawing students into experiencing that situation (like the activity Candle), and providing some reflective distance by focusing on the experience of another student who was faced with the need to revise an observation. It seeks to engage students in empathizing with another student’s thought process, then connecting the resulting choices to the virtue of humility and considering how this is related to their own thought processes.

Consider how often your teaching practices encourage these kinds of connections.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Aluminum pop can, emptied of soda

  • Tongs for handling the heated pop can

  • Hot plate

  • Tap water, 10-15 mL

  • Masking tape

  • Water bath containing cold water

  • Gloves for high and low temperatures

  • Proper eye protection via safety goggles

  • Presentation slides in Pop Can Implosion

Directions:

Safety precautions:

  • Be careful due to high temperatures in this demonstration.
  • Be careful of the hot can and the release of steam created by heating water in the can.
  • Wear goggles and protective gloves throughout the demonstration.

Teaching the Activity

Review the following point from the activity Candle: in everyday life, there does not seem to be a pressing need to distinguish between an observation and an inference. This distinction is often difficult to make. If there is so much confusion, and if it is so difficult to differentiate an inference from an observation, then why try to do so? It is useful to do in science. There are times when we need to specify “observation” and times when we need to specify “inference.”

Consider a demonstration involving the imploding pop can to help illustrate differences between observations and inferences. The basic steps in this procedure are the following:

  1. Obtain an empty aluminum pop can, some tongs, a hot plate, and a small tub of cold water. Use masking tape to reduce the size of the hole in the can by about 50 percent.
  2. Pour about 10 or 15 mL of tap water into the pop can, and begin heating it on the hot plate.
  3. Position the container of cold water next to the hot plate.
  4. Heat the can until the water inside boils and completely fills the can with water vapor. (You will know this has occurred when you see steam rising from the can.) Give sufficient boiling time to ensure that the can is completely filled with water vapor, but do not let all the water boil away.
  5. Grasp the middle of the can with tongs and, in one quick and smooth motion, invert the open end of the can into the container of cold water. Observe what happens. (The can rapidly implodes!)

Perform this demonstration for students and ask them to write down in a sentence or two what they observed. Then display Slide 1 of Pop Can Implosion, which shows what a previous student wrote as an observation after being shown the demonstration:

The can cooled down on the inside when immersed in the cool water and then the sides of the can were sucked in.

Ask students to identify any part of this sentence where the student is offering an inference, rather than an observation.

Indeed, the can did implode—the sides collapsed—but were the sides pushed in or sucked in? Present this question to the class. Ask them to share their ideas in small groups, and then bring the group back together to share further.

When students are ready, you can share with them the accepted scientific explanation of what occurred in this demonstration.

When water vapor inside the can cools considerably after placement in cold water, water vapor in the can condenses. The loss of water vapor (gas) particles inside the can significantly reduces the pressure inside the can (internal pressure). Review with students how the can also experiences external pressure, due to surrounding air particles colliding with the can.

After the can is immersed in the cool water and condensation occurs, the external pressure is now much greater than the internal pressure, and the sides of the can are pushed in (not sucked in).

Return to the past student’s observations—especially the statement that the “sides of the can were sucked in.”

How does an observation differ from an inference? Stating that “the can’s sides were sucked in” was an inference, rather than an observation.

Ask students to review their own observations:

  • Did they contain any inferences?
  • Should anything be revised in light of the discussion?

Finally, ask students to imagine confronting the student who wrote the observation about the sides of the can being sucked in. The student wrote down what he believed he saw. What are some ways in which this student might react if told that this observation contained an important inference, and that this inference was mistaken?

Ask students to suggest a range of possible reactions to being told that they are wrong about something that seems obvious to them, and discuss which of these reactions might fit best with false pride or the virtue of humility.

Optional Extra

Have students engage in further experimental activities and record observations, and then work together to examine their observations for possible inferences in the guise of observations.

 

1This activity is adapted by its author from copyrighted material in Learning & Teaching Scientific Inquiry: Research and Applications by James Jadrich and Crystal Bruxvoort (NSTA Press, 2011). Used by permission.

Observations, Inferences, Models

In Brief

This activity1 builds on the activity Pop Can Implosion and engages students in exploring its implications further. Using the example of student observation from the previous activity, students will delve deeper into the differences between observation and inferences.

Goals

Students will understand how too much trust in our inferences and models can lead away from truth.

Students will understand why the tentative nature of models and inferences is a necessary part of science.

Thinking Ahead

This activity reviews themes that have run through preceding activities. It invites students to relate models and inferences to scientific knowledge and to themes such as pride, humility, love of truth, and the willingness to exercise faith and trust in the absence of complete certainty.

Considering the role of models in our thinking can help us consider the relationship of our knowledge claims to both humility and trust. The need to practice humility is particularly clear when something that we had taken to be obviously true is challenged, and we have to consider whether we assumed too much.

Consider how often your teaching practices help students make big-picture connections of this kind, and how often students are left to figure out for themselves what to trust, and how much faith to place in what they think they know.

Related Book Review: God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith by Ruth Bancewicz

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Display Slide 1 of Observations, Inferences, Models and review with students what a previous student wrote as an observation, after being shown the pop can implosion demonstration (Pop Can Implosion):

The can cooled down on the inside when immersed in the cool water and then the sides of the can were sucked in.

Check that students can still identify which parts of this were observation, and which were inference, and why the inference was problematic. Tell students that they are going to think a little further about why the distinction between observation and inference might be important. In particular, they are going to consider two problems that might arise if we do not pay attention to it.

Review with students why the current scientific view would regard the inference that the sides of the can were “sucked in” as mistaken. (When water vapor inside the can cools, water vapor in the can condenses. The loss of water vapor—gas—particles inside the can reduces the internal pressure. The can also experiences external pressure, due to surrounding air particles colliding with the can. The external pressure is now much greater than the internal pressure, and the sides of the can are pushed in.)

Ask students if they can identify any broader scientific models that are being used to offer this explanation. Explain that a model arises when our inferences become systematized to provide a more coherent picture that can help guide future investigation.

Elicit that the explanation relies on models of gases and liquids as made up of particles, of differences in pressure and their effects, and of the effects of cooling on water vapor.

Ask students how they think these models were reached. (Through a previous process of many observations and inferences, and the repeated testing of those observations and inferences in different circumstances).

Ask students to identify why respect for the truth might mean we have to revise a model that makes sense to us. (In order to do justice to reality, rather than accept the account we find most comforting.) And then ask how pride and humility might enter this process. (Pride can manifest in various ways, including both overconfidence in a scientific or theological finding or, conversely, a tendency to judge and mistrust scientists or theologians and dismiss their findings. Humility can imply both caution and a willingness to learn. Be sure that students are aware of some of the complexity here, and do not associate virtue only with mistrusting sources.)

Next, ask students what might happen if the student who wrote about the can being sucked in persists in believing this explanation and continues to observe other things in the world, such as a deflating balloon or the creaking of a deep-sea submersible. Might this student be able to come up with a model that keeps the idea of “sucking in” and explains a range of other instances? If he did, what might the risks be in simply assuming that his first inferences were right, and building an ever more elaborate model that keeps them intact? (You could refer here to examples such as the elaborate models of the solar system that were developed to retain the assumption that the earth was the center around which heavenly bodies moved.)

  • How might we eventually decide whether to go with this model or with the current scientifically accepted one, in which condensation and changes in relative pressure cause a “pushing in”?
  • Why might a concern for truth demand that we be willing to give up some initial inferences if another model seems better able to explain what we see?

Have students consider how likely it is that the student would have noticed the problem with false inference if the teacher had not pointed it out. Ask whether we should be equally certain about observations and inferences; elicit that we tend to be more certain of our observations than our inferences when we are aware of the distinction. We tend to recognize that there is more uncertainty associated with drawing inferences—again, as long as we are aware that that is what we are doing. However, in this case, the student probably thought he was making observations, when actually he was making inferences. This may have led him to have too much confidence, a false certainty about his statement.

What if the student held steadfast even when the teacher offered an explanation that sounded quite different? The teacher based this explanation on condensation, a sudden reduction in pressure, and greater external pressure pushing in the sides of the can—all ideas the student did not recognize he needed to use. If the student did not revise his frame of reference, he might continue to assume his observations were correct. If he believed that they were simply observations, he might not see why there could be a need to revise them.

Again, ask students to identify why respect for the truth might mean we have to revise a model that we felt quite sure about (in order to do justice to reality, rather than our own certainty), and how pride and humility might enter this process.

Conclude by discussing the questions included on Slide 2 of Observations, Inferences, Models:

  • Why is it useful in science to distinguish observations from inferences?
  • What mistakes are we likely to make as we try to keep the distinction clear?
  • How does understanding the ways that observations, inferences, and models are related but different help us understand the nature of scientific knowledge?
  • If we cannot be absolutely certain of scientific models, are they useless? Why should we trust them?
  • If a scientist assumes the model she is working on is subject to revision, what does this compel her to do in her work?
  • What do inferences and models have to do with virtues such as humility, faith, and love of truth?

Reinforce for students how being careful not to state an inference and identify it as an observation assists us in finding the right amount of confidence in scientific ideas, by being neither too certain (inferences might be wrong), nor too skeptical (models help us see what is there). When scientists (and science students) state why nature is operating as it is, we must remember that we are modeling what is occurring. We cannot assume we are necessarily describing nature exactly as it is, but rather we are providing our best representation or model of how nature works, in an attempt to make sense of our observations.

Good models, then, are derived from, and have held up under, much testing, evidence-analysis, and making of further observations and inferences. However, even good models are subject to revision. Seeking the truth necessitates the humility to be able to revise our perceptions, and requires a faith in the reliability of the world as we test our inferences and models against it.


1
This activity is adapted by its author from copyrighted material in Learning & Teaching Scientific Inquiry: Research and Applications by James Jadrich and Crystal Bruxvoort (NSTA Press, 2011). Used by permission.

Debrief Activities

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

  • Activity

    25 min

    Beliefs about Knowledge Revisited

Beliefs about Knowledge Revisited

In Brief

This activity revisits the questionnaire from the activity Beliefs About Knowledge. It invites students to look again at their earlier answers and to see how their thinking has developed as a result of the intervening activities. Students will write a short exercise to assess their own learning and changes in their thinking.

Goals

Students will review their initial assumptions about the nature of scientific and theological knowledge and note any changes.

Thinking Ahead

The activity Beliefs About Knowledge created space for students to articulate their initial assumptions about scientific and theological knowledge, creating a checkpoint for later comparison. This follow-up activity asks students to review their earlier answers and articulate ways in which their thinking has changed. This activity assumes that you have worked through at least some of the previous activities in this map and/or done other work on the nature of modeling in science and theology.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Teaching the Activity

Give students a clean copy of Beliefs About Knowledge from the activity Beliefs About Knowledge. Ask them to fill it out in silence without referring back to their earlier answers. Explain to students that this first activity is not a test, and that you will not assess their answers. When they have finished, ask them to find their original answers and compare them to see if anything has changed. Then ask students to write a few paragraphs using the following prompt:

  • What, if anything, has changed in your thinking since you first answered these questions?
  • Why has it changed? What have you learned?
  • What have you learned that increased your understanding of particular items, whether or not your view changed?
  • How can the learning that we have achieved on this topic help us think about the relationship between faith and science?

You can use this piece of writing as part of your assessment of learning on this topic.

Finally, share with students your own answers to the questions on the sheet. This will allow them to be aware of any items where their assumptions are still at odds with more informed views. Allow some time for class discussion of this, and note any key variances as the basis for planning future instruction.