Essay by Bruce Congdon, Professor of Biology

Photo by Jerry Gay

In addition to his regular teaching duties at Seattle Pacific, Professor of Biology Bruce Congdon directs a thriving program of off-campus study on sparsely populated Blakely Island in the San Juan archipelago. The 965-acre Blakely Island Campus and Blakely Field Station owned by SPU provide instruction and research opportunities in marine biology and other disciplines.

For the last two years, Congdon has been the lead faculty representative on the team designing a new science facility for SPU. He received his B.S. degree in biology from the College of the Ozarks in 1979, his master's degree in entomology from Colorado State University in 1981, and his doctorate in acarology and botany from the University of California-Riverside in 1985. He has been at SPU since 1985.


A New Science Building for a New Century at SPU

At the top of the list of priorities in Seattle Pacific University's Comprehensive Plan for the 21st Century is a new science building. "We live in a vibrant city known for its leadership in science and technology," says President Philip Eaton. "If SPU is going to be a positive change-agent in our community and the world, then we have to offer students the finest in science education. That's the vision we have for this new facility."

Already, science faculty members have worked with a lab planner and architects to design a building that is in the top tier of science education facilities around the country. More than 63,000 square feet in size, and sited where Tiffany Hall and Green Hall now stand, the three-story structure is envisioned as the nerve center of an enhanced science program benefiting all Seattle Pacific students. Among other things, it will house instruction and laboratory space for the disciplines of chemistry, biology and psychology. And its flexible design will accommodate the study of science at SPU well into the 21st century.

Underpinning the entire science initiative is a commitment to undergraduate research. "Hands-on research experience is what gives students the competitive edge in today's marketplace," says Bruce Congdon, professor of biology and lead faculty representative on the design team. "We've planned the science facility with dedicated undergraduate research space, and with shared instrumentation and adjacent laboratories that allow for faculty-student and interdisciplinary collaboration."

Another foundational principle in the design of the new building is public access to science. A "discovery room" on the first floor features science displays; windowed laboratories allow visitors to see "science in action"; and a 78-seat lecture hall can accommodate public events as well as classes. A rooftop greenhouse visible from several vantage points on campus is an attractive link to the study of living things.

Notable features of the building also include laboratories for molecular genetics and biochemistry, two of the most cutting-edge scientific disciplines; data ports at every student work station, allowing for simultaneous lab work and data analysis; card-key access to laboratories and storage areas; and a sophisticated microscope and imaging suite.

Congdon describes the new facility as an "enormous leap forward," while emphasizing that it will enhance, not change, the University's historical mission. "SPU is about Christian professors in mentoring relationships with students. That is what sets us apart and will continue to set us apart."

A man is arrested and held on suspicion of murder. He is freed after analysis of blood found at the scene points to someone else's guilt.

Scientists introduce into tobacco plants a copy of the gene for a protein essential to blood clotting. The goal is to "grow" the protein for possible use in the treatment of hemophilia.

Researchers reassemble the remains of 200 people buried near Mexico City in 200 A.D. Preserved biological evidence helps them reconstruct the story behind this ancient mass grave.

By isolating strains of the E.coli bacteria, scientists trace an outbreak of disease in Washington state to a contaminated lake in which most of the victims had been swimming.

Each of these stories appeared in a recent issue of The Seattle Times. Each has an effect upon the way we live our lives, perceive our culture and anticipate the future. And each reflects the impact upon our lives of modern science, in this case the science of DNA.

Rapid changes in our knowledge about the physical world have become so commonplace that we now take them for granted. Everyone today has heard of DNA, and most people know that it contains instructions for determining the structure of cells and bodies. But until about 50 years ago, the function of DNA was unknown. Our entire conception of biological life has been transformed by knowledge of this one molecule.

Another recent Times story had this headline: "Medical student discovers cancer-fighting protein." To understand the article and its implications, the reader was expected to understand basic technical terms like "protein," "gene," "molecule," "tumor" and "cell," and perceive the relevance of experimental results involving "mice and rats injected with human cells." The findings reported in the article were exciting and newsworthy, but how many readers fully comprehended their significance?

In this age of innovation and information, non-scientist citizens face a real dilemma: Do they have a responsibility to keep up with the tide of information that is changing our world so profoundly? Should an understanding of science and technology be part of our definitions of an educated person and a good citizen? Should students at Seattle Pacific and other reputable universities be required to take biological and physical sciences in order to earn a degree?

Educators and government agencies throughout the nation have been answering these questions with urgent calls for improving "scientific literacy." Hundreds of articles, books and conferences in the last 40 years have focused on scientific literacy in the U.S. and internationally. Most have deplored the lack of scientific knowledge that is increasingly apparent.

For example, a survey reported in the journal Science (February 3, 1989) found that less than half of the 2,000 adults in the U.S. and 2,000 adults in Great Britain surveyed knew that the earth revolves around the sun once a year. Only 12 percent of Americans recognized that astrology was not scientific, and 35 percent of the participants in both surveys thought (incorrectly) that radioactive milk could be made safe by boiling. The American study, supported by the National Science Foundation, concluded that only 6 percent of Americans could be considered literate about science.

Several publications, like Science for All Americans published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989), and National Science Education Standards published by the National Research Council (1995), have set out detailed plans and standards for improving science education as a means to increasing scientific literacy.

One of the central questions in this vast body of work is "What constitutes scientific literacy?" or "What should the average citizen know about science?" Some argue that there are particular facts that everyone ought to know, like what diseases antibiotics can effectively treat and what radiation is. Others place more emphasis on the creative and critical-thinking process of science as a basic tool for problem-solving in all of life. Most agree that Americans know far too little in both categories, making them vulnerable to pseudoscientific deception and less able to make intelligent policy choices in science-related areas.

Consider the choices we make each day that affect our health, our safety, and the quality of life experienced by people in every part of the world. What do we need to know about nutrition to choose foods and supplements wisely? How do we take responsibility for our health when faced with different treatment options or medical opinions? How well do we understand the arguments about the environmental impacts of various energy, transportation or natural resource management alternatives? On what basis do we respond to advertisements or decide how to vote on initiatives and candidates?

These choices usually cannot be made solely on the basis of science, but good decisions about issues such as these must be informed by a knowledge of science. That's one reason we take science seriously at Seattle Pacific.

At SPU, we want all students to be aware of the most significant scientific discoveries and the implications of those discoveries for themselves and humanity. We also want to teach science in a way that prepares future citizens for the inevitable, rapid changes that will continue to take place in our understanding of the natural world. The ability to think analytically about complex problems and to think creatively about possible solutions are tools we want our students to have when they graduate whether they are becoming professional scientists, science teachers, or scientifically literate citizens in other vocations.

The Christian commitment of SPU makes scientific literacy even more important to us. The natural world is God's handiwork, so understanding it better is one way of serving our Creator. Taking science seriously is an expression of our faith.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation can be instruments to bring understanding, compassion and healing to a hurting world, but they are instruments that need guidance. Science, to serve human needs, requires the context of a moral and ethical foundation. Seattle Pacific faculty members provide that foundation through their commitment to God and to the nurturing of student competence and character in the sciences and throughout a broad and intentional liberal arts and faith development curriculum.

The solutions to the pain in our world are not simple, and the main ingredient in them, we believe, is God's love. But the tools for demonstrating that love at this time in history are often influenced by, and sometimes even created by, scientific inquiry and technological application.

Paradoxically, science can cause controversy and uncertainty at the same time it solves mysteries. For the SPU community to effectively engage our culture, we must develop the skills required for listening, understanding and leading in a world filled with contradictions. We need to identify and preserve our central reality the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ while living with the tension of constant change that is the theme of life in our culture.

To provide the level and kind of science education I'm describing demands a large commitment of faculty and University resources. It requires new ways of teaching and learning, new methods of observing and measuring, and new resolve to enhance the science facilities at SPU.

We live in a time of revolution. To be effective sources of light and hope in this technological world, we will have to continue to integrate the language and practice of science into the fabric of a Seattle Pacific education.


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