Letter to the Editor: Formation in Science as a Liberal Art
by Dr. Seann Mulcahy
In 1947, exactly 30 years after its founding, Providence College broke ground on its second academic building, Albertus Magnus Hall. Dedicated in honor of the medieval scholar and Dominican Friar, “Al Mag” was built to serve PC students interested in studying the natural and physical sciences in the era of optimism after the second World War.
In those days, students at PC learned about the newly discovered structure of DNA, the synthesis of the miracle drug penicillin, and the physics behind the Manhattan project.
In the decades since, PC science alumni have not only dedicated their careers to making our world a better place, they have been some of the College’s most gracious benefactors. But while science has progressed relentlessly in the last 70 years, PC’s facilities have not kept up with the pace of scientific advancement. That is, until now.
On September 28, 2018, members of the PC community gathered to officially dedicate the new addition to the science complex that adjoins Albertus Magnus, Sowa, and Hickey Halls. It was a celebration that brought together current and former students, faculty and staff for a hopeful blessing of our future.
As I watched the new building being built over the past two years, I have often caught myself thinking about the sciences in the context of the broad-based, liberal arts education we have at PC.
While many students will indeed be training for scientific careers, the new addition is not just a facility for science majors. In fact, through the core curriculum, each PC student will at some point learn the scientific method as one approach to experiencing the material world we live in.
It is this latter philosophy that makes science itself a liberal art—co-equal with the arts, humanities, and social sciences—and essential to leading a meaningful life.
That’s because the sciences are more than an area of study or a set of facts to be memorized. Scientists are engaged in deep thinking about the natural world in a way similar to a historian exploring an ancient text or a writer using language to craft a novel.
In our version of “close-looking,” we use data and experimentation to uncover the world’s mysteries, and in the process inform our understanding of the human condition. At PC, we do this by engaging our students in approaches like “active learning” in the classroom or in original research projects in the laboratory.
We challenge our students to think critically about scientific data, to solve problems, to debate alternative conclusions from experimental data, and to make sound arguments in written or oral form. This approach is consistent with the aims of a liberal arts education, and contradicts shallow belief that the sciences are strictly vocational.
This approach to science education is not universal, however. Major research universities will undoubtedly have bigger grants, more expensive instrumentation, and higher profile research projects, but the intellectual development of the undergraduate student is rarely their central focus.
What makes a PC education remarkable and so valued in the marketplace is that we teach students how to think scientifically through close mentorship from dedicated faculty members. And now, we have a new home that will allow us to achieve this goal more effectively.
As a member of the faculty, I am very excited to use this new facility, which features new classrooms, contemporary teaching laboratories, updated office space, and a student lounge and quiet study areas.
While the new Science Center is just the beginning in a long process of addition and renovation, I am extremely grateful that the College has made this commitment to our students’ future, and look forward to the completion of the next phases of the project with the help of our wider community.