Faith and science working together

Writing commands in computer code, attaching sensors and connecting circuit boards are usually not the first things that come to mind in connection with an extracurricular activity at a Catholic liberal arts college. But that is exactly what students in the robotics workshop do every week at Christendom College, led by faculty member Damian Fedoryka. Sponsored by the college’s department of math and natural sciences, students gather to build robots and receive hands-on experience in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as STEM, in the process.

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More than lights, sensors

Fedoryka, an alumnus of Christendom and son to the college’s second president, has a master’s in electrical engineering from George Mason University and works as a staff electrical engineer at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, where he supports a robotics assembly for a satellite solution. At Christendom, Fedoryka teaches a course in computer science, in addition to running the robotics workshop.

Gregory Townsend, vice president of academic affairs and then-chair of the department of mathematics and natural science at Christendom, approached Fedoryka about staring the workshop as a faculty-led extracurricular activity. “I wanted to provide our students with an opportunity to learn something of the technology that is prevalent in our society … [and] address some of the questions that are at the cutting edge of the relation between science and reason, such as the nature of the human mind,” said Townsend.

Fedoryka was on board with the idea of introducing students to various forms of engineering in an interactive environment. The workshop “expose[s] students to a mix of software engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering principles through a hands-on approach,” said Fedoryka, noting that students work together in small groups to build the same model of robot over the course of the academic year. “There is a lot of interchange and collaboration during the workshop — and a lot of fun.”

Last year, students worked together on the BoeBot project. David Snyder, a senior and double major in math and English at Christendom, described the robot as “three wheels carrying a small circuit board where you can hook up all kinds of sensors.”

Maggie Kaiser, also a senior math major, noted that some of these attachments included “feelers, lights and a sound mechanism.” Students programmed the BoeBot by connecting it to a computer and writing the commands in computer code before disconnecting it and pressing a button for it to perform the commands.

The robot’s activity varied based on the commands and sensors that the students used, according to Snyder. “Once,” he said, “using light sensors, we got the BoeBots to remain still until the lights in their room were turned on, at which point, the BoeBots would sort of scatter like roaches.”

Christendom
Damian Fedoryka, his daughter Christiana and fellow student Thomas Bailey work on BoeBots.

‘Catholic math,’ science

Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in Front Royal, Virginia, Christendom College’s 40 years in Catholic higher education have focused on forming students in the philosophy, theology, literature, language, history and politics of western civilization.

Recently, the college added a math major to its list of degrees and saw its first round of graduates from the program this spring. One has been accepted to a graduate program in mathematics, and another is taking exams to become an actuary.

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Dr. Miriam Byers, current chair of Christendom’s department of mathematics and natural science, told Our Sunday Visitor that while “some people see science as antithetical to faith” — especially in regard to recent developments in the medical field, such as embryonic stem-cell research — these developments point to the greater need for Catholics to be involved in STEM and medicine.

Townsend agreed. “People of faith (and of the higher sciences) have not been very good at articulating the relationship between faith and science,” said he. “Part of the problem is that very few people of faith have been competent in both areas,” a gap that Christendom strives to fill.

In terms of the program, Byers said that parents and prospective students have asked, “How is Catholic math different from other math?” The short answer, she said, is “It’s not.”

According to Byers, Christendom’s program is comparable to a B.A. in math from other liberal arts colleges, but what separates the Christendom’s math program from the rest is that students “can place it in relation to other disciplines.”

“The purpose of a liberal arts education is to provide an understanding of reality in its totality; the natural sciences are an integral part of this education,” Townsend added. “Theology and the humanities only provide a partial understanding of reality. ... In the tradition of Western civilization, the liberal arts education has always included the natural sciences and mathematics.”

Christendom
Fedoryka shows student Thomas Bailey how to use the BoeBot.

Exposure to STEM

While Fedoryka noted that workshop attendance varies, he said that “the program is set up in such a way that new students can join throughout the semester and participate seamlessly.”

Byers likewise noted that the flexibility is one of the workshop’s benefits; since there is no semester-long commitment to participate, it gives students “a low-pressure environment to get a taste of STEM,” she said.

Students have found the workshop beneficial in exploring STEM-related career paths. According to Snyder, who is looking at a career in statistics or as an actuary, the exposure to computer coding is a benefit of the workshop that “can open up a lot of job options.”

Kaiser, who plans to be an analyst for the Navy after graduation, also noted the practical benefits of the workshop, saying that the basic knowledge of programming she acquired through it helped her in an internship this past summer.

For Fedoryka, the experience of STEM provided by the robotics workshop fits perfectly within the mission of Christendom College, to restore all things in Christ: 

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“Technology has become such an integral part of daily life in the modern world. … This workshop allows [students] to learn about and experience technology within the Catholic atmosphere that is such a part of Christendom and its mission. There’s so much talk these days about STEM studies, and since the “M” in stem is mathematics, one of the original liberal arts, I think it is fitting that Christendom offer students exposure to this significant field of study.”

Amy Marter is an alumna of Christendom College, a graduate student at The Catholic University of America and OSV Newsweekly’s 2018 summer intern.