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UMBC selected to host dialogue about science and religion in partnership with the AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has chosen UMBC to host a conference regarding the topics of religion and science; only five other universities across the country were selected to host this dialogue. Staff members of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program will help lead on sessions that are aimed at STEM community members engaging with others of diverse backgrounds or communities.

Sarah Hansen, the communications manager for STEM in the Office of Institutional Advancement who focuses on the College of Natural and Mathematical Science, recalled how the university was chosen: “We put out an application and they ended up selecting us and five others.” She cites that one of the strengths of the application was UMBC’s history of inclusive excellence and the campus’ desire to serve diversity.

Dr. Bill LaCourse, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who is also the dean of the college of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, explains how the AAAS forum will work throughout the two days it is scheduled to happen. “In the morning of March 25th in Flat Tuesdays, there will be an open area for students and faculty to come in freely and ask questions.”

Following that, a workshop in the afternoon will see experts from DoSER train STEM researchers on how to communicate science effectively to diverse communities. That evening four experts from different religious backgrounds will speak on their experience as scientists while practicing their faith. The following day, the Mar. 26, will involve more of the campus community speaking amongst each other to ensure that students and faculty can interact together.

Dr. Stephen Freeland, who is the director of the Individualized Study program and an associate professor of biology, uses vital statistics to explain why having this dialogue is so important, not only to those practicing of faith, but to the scientific community. “A majority of the American public self-identifies as religious in some way shape or form. If scientists don’t know how to work with that context sensitively, their science is not going to be effective.”

Student organizations, Meyerhoff Scholars and Graduate Fellows, STEM Living Learning Community, Mosaic Center, McNair Scholars, UMBC Hillel and the School of Public Policy are scheduled to be involved, while others may be added as the events approach.

LaCourse explained, “We bring up the conversation, but these groups will build on it in smaller groups.” The STEM communications manager also expressed her desire for more student organizations on campus to become involved on the second day of conversation to allow for more flow of dialogue to occur within the UMBC community.

Along with a time and space for open discussion, Hansen explains that when UMBC won their spot in the forum, they also received a grant to be presented to the winners of this contest, in which $1,000 will be presented to four winners to further promote their outreach efforts of engaging religious communities with science within the surrounding community outside of UMBC.

This meeting will help people to get to know others and their beliefs as religiously-practicing scientists. Dr. LaCourse emphasizes that this event is not about conversion, but rather people understanding each other. Dr. Freeland praises UMBC for doing so well during his time as a faculty member at the university, saying, “I’ve never felt in any way awkward about the fact that I am a Christian who teaches evolutionary biology.”

Hansen also presented the idea of the intersectionality of people’s identities through gender, race and other aspects that influence their life experiences and how the upcoming events will allow people to explore the intersectionality of their faith and their scientific discipline. The whole goal of the event is not any sort of academic debate, but rather, to give UMBC and its members a welcoming space to freely discuss their beliefs as scientists.