Discovery Day: Students Debut New Truths About God, Man and Outer Space

From the remarkable research of students who developed an important way to use a new NASA telescope, to the keynote address by Stephen M. Barr, president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, science and faith was an unofficial theme of 2022’s Discovery Day, held April 6 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

For more than 25 years, the college’s Discovery Day has dedicated a Wednesday in the Spring Semester for students to present on the results of special research they have done under the direction of faculty.

Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of the College, said that “For months — or, in some cases, years — students and faculty have worked together to find out something new about the world,” she said. “Discovery Day gives us the opportunity to see the fruits of their work.”

This year’s projects included everything from an app to access the Internet without a data plan, methods to harvest solar energy, to a closer look at the Crazy Ivar character in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! Engineers even fought Robot Battle pitting electronic contestants with names like “Mouse Trap,” “Wrenchy”, and “Dinosaur.” Thomas Hoerner, a senior from St. Louis who plans to continue study in theology at Notre Dame, delivered his significant senior thesis asking whether Origen’s influential commentary on the Song of Songs is based on an inaccuracy in one version of the Biblical text.

But Benedictine College’s STEM programs often direct the most projects, and this year astronomer Dr. Christopher Shingledecker was involved in four projects. Shingledecker attended Discovery Day five days after making a remarkable presentation on the origin of life at Rome’s Angelicum, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas. He brought the Society of Catholic Scientists to Benedictine College earlier this year school.

In one project directed by Shingledecker, senior Daniel Lopez-Sanders of Burnsville, Minn., and Joshua Mansfield, a junior from Oconomowoc, Wisc., (shown) developed a method to simulate the kinds of ice-covered stardust grains that will be a major target of study by the new James Webb Space Telescope. This was particularly relevant to Shingledecker, who was chosen to be one of the first scientists internationally to use the NASA’s newest telescope, meant to replace the Hubble telescope.

“Daniel and Josh’s work represents a major breakthrough here, since they have developed a program that can do overnight what it would normally take a scientist sitting at a computer weeks or months to accomplish,” Shingledecker said.

In another, Natalie Brake, a junior from Grand, Kansas, and Clayton Stewart, a senior from Lincoln, Neb., presented on the “astrolabe,” a tool that is more versatile than telescopes and was used from the 500s to the 1600s to tell time, navigate at sea, measure the height of objects, and predict the weather. The project aimed to design and 3D print astrolabes to make them more affordable.

Shingledecker also oversaw highly technical research projects, such as the work of Garrett Nobis, a junior from Corning, Iowa, to study “sputtering” where cosmic radiation blasts atoms and molecules from the surface of planetary objects much like a cue ball hitting a cluster of billiard balls. In a separate project, Virginia Jarvis, a senior from Springfield, Va., and Joseph Wandishin, a junior from Arvada, Colo., worked with Faith and Grace Quinn, sophomores from Wesley Chapel, Fla. Their presentation was called “Grain-Surface Hydrogen-Addition Reactions as a Chemical Link Between Cold Cores and Hot Corinos: The Case of H2CCS and CH3CH2SH,” which is also the title of paper on the subject that was recently submitted.

The keynote address at the daylong presentation of student scholarship was given by the president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, University of Delaware particle physicist Stephen Barr.

“I am a scientist for many of the same reasons that I am religious,” he told the standing-room only crowd at the college’s O’Malley-McAllister Auditorium, “a sense of wonder, a passionate desire to know the reason behind things, the belief that there is a reason behind things, and the deep conviction that everything holds together in some coherent way.”

Barr is an editorial advisor to First Things and has written for America, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI awarded him the Benemerenti Medal for service to the Catholic Church.

“For me, both the Catholic faith and modern science make sense of the world,” he said. “Science tells us about the things that we can observe and measure. Our faith has a much wider scope and deals with much deeper questions … God and man, love and truth, good and evil, sin and redemption.”

His address, “Science and Religion: The Myth of Conflict” pointed out that history’s most notable scientific pioneers were driven by faith, such as Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes and Father Georges Lemaitre, who formulated the Big Bang Theory.

Not only is the conflict between religion and science a myth, he said, but “the things discovered by science, especially in the 20th century, contrary to what many people think, have actually in a number of ways tended to agree with the fundamental religious ideas about the universe and our place in it.”

Shingledecker said the speech made a crucial point. “Dr. Barr highlighted what is a really common misunderstanding – that the Universe independently exists as an object separate from its creator – like a watch, after it’s made, exists independently of its maker,” he said. “In this false view, secondary — natural — causes are often thought to be a threat to belief in God who, it’s supposed, acts in the world only through supernatural primary causes. However, the universe, unlike a watch, can’t exist separate from its creator.”

President Stephen D. Minnis said the day was a great showcase for its new 100,000-square-foot science building, designed to be the finest small-college STEM facility in America.

“The collaboration with faculty in a common academic program is essential to our mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship,” President Stephen D. Minnis said. “At Benedictine College, you find that cooperation in every department, but in exciting ways in cutting-edge science.”

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Ex Corde Editorial Staff

Benedictine College’s mission can Transform Culture in America by modeling community in an age of incivility, spreading faith in an age of hopelessness, and committing to scholarship in a “post-truth” era. The Ex Corde Center for Catholic Media creates video and other media content to promote positive messages of faith, hope, and love while providing students with the tools, experiences, and contacts they need to enter the 21st century media world as effective communicators. Learn about the Ex Corde media fellows program.