Mentoring for the Cultivation of Virtue in the Sciences

Part of a series of posts written by a team of faculty and students at Calvin University who are developing a curriculum to support team-based research. Their hope is that this blog series will spark a dialog about measures of success that are not typically prioritized in scholarly work and ways this project could be expanded to other colleges and universities, both within and beyond the Christian tradition. This post was written by Rachael Baker, Julie Yonker, and Amy Wilstermann.

In the first three blogs in this series, we introduced our Team Sciences and Christian Practices project—an initiative aimed at preparing undergraduate scientists-in-training to work effectively in interdisciplinary environments through the development of faith-based virtue practices. Many students in the sciences have a narrow view of vocation that overemphasizes the value and importance of their paid work and their productivity in those spaces. Through the intentional and explicit inclusion of Christian Practices in a research experience, we hope to help students better understand that living vocationally transcends the work we do and encompasses discerning and prioritizing who we want to be as individuals and community members in work (and other) environments. Our curriculum aims to encourage students to think more deeply about what it means to engage fully in community and to equip them to do so in current and future research settings, classrooms, their local community, and beyond. In this last post we describe how we prepare faculty to discuss, model, and encourage employment of faith-based virtue practices in their undergraduate research settings and how we are assessing the impact of our curriculum.

Our current curriculum materials are intended to be used in an undergraduate research setting led by a faculty mentor. While much of the curriculum is self-guided, mentors are expected to lead discussions about the role of virtue practices in character and team development in team science settings once a week. Faculty are also strongly encouraged to employ the practices in their own work because, as noted in an earlier blog, it is difficult to teach practices effectively without also modeling them for students.

To equip mentors to engage students in discussions about the practices and to help them envision how they might implement them in their research spaces, we hosted two faculty development workshops at Calvin University in the spring. The first workshop provided a framework for the project. Mentors were introduced to 

  • the driving question: how do we limit team science challenges and increase team science benefits?,
  • the hypothesis: thriving community provides an environment that facilitates success in team science, and 
  • the method: development of virtue practices among scientists-in-training that promote character development and thriving community.

Mentors were also introduced to individual and community practices included in the curriculum and provided with examples of how we have employed and encouraged the use of these practices in our research space. 

During our workshop, many faculty mentors realized they are already employing several of these practices and implementing the curriculum would not require a significant change in the management of their research spaces. What did need to change, however, was the way the students experienced the practices. Mentors needed to bring attention to the practices they were employing and be explicit about why they were doing so and what value each practice carried. Mentors also discovered that they needed to think carefully about how they would help students develop and employ practices in a research setting as they were learning about the practices through engagement with the curriculum.

To encourage faculty mentors to carefully consider how they would accomplish these tasks and how the tasks fit with overall research and mentoring goals, we asked them to complete the following activities:

  • Write a vision statement for their research team containing these elements: overarching research goal, mentoring goals, community goals (virtue practice integration).
  • Develop a practical plan for implementing various virtue practices in their research space.

At the second faculty workshop, mentors shared their vision statements and implementation plans. Our discussions were fruitful, providing opportunities for mentors to hear new ideas, hone one another’s plans, and think together to identify innovative strategies for practice development and implementation. This was a powerful opportunity for faculty to articulate hopes they have for their students related to living lives of meaning and purpose (a vocational question) and how their time in the research lab fit into the development and growth toward that larger vocational development.

The second workshop also provided an opportunity to discuss how the project would be assessed. We are committed to a rigorous assessment of the impact of this Christian Practice curriculum via a mixed-methods (quantitative and qualitative), pre-post design with an intervention group (Team Science research students) and a control group (other summer research students) together with a faculty pre-post survey assessment. Our goal with the assessment is to show that this vocational work has value for helping students strengthen their sense of calling and identity as well as develop professional skills that benefit the overall productivity and life of the research team. 

Our primary quantitative measure is a pre-post-survey given to participating faculty and students enabling us to measure the impact of the explicit Christian Practices and virtue development on the individual. The surveys are identical except for an additional question for the faculty inquiring if they had a mission statement for their team and if so, what was the mission statement. We asked students and faculty about their understanding of challenges associated with Team Science research. Faculty stated the typical challenges associated with Team Science research, namely, communication, expectations, and consistency. 

We also asked which Christian Practices could build a strong Christian research community and which Christian practices could contribute to student growth in the research lab/group. Faculty responded to both questions with an emphasis on humility, compassion, gratitude, and patience. Quantitatively, we are measuring change within the individual on attitudes and tendencies and will using the following scales: Gratitude (McCullough et al., 2002), Intellectual Humility (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016), Prosocial Orientation (Carlo et al., 2003), Spiritual Well-being (Bufford et al., 1991) and overall Well-Being (Bech et al., 1996). These are reliable and valid scales that measure some of the nuances of human agency, especially the potential influence of the curriculum on the important Christian qualities associated with the curriculum.

Qualitatively, we will be coding the pre-post reflection questions that the Team Science students submit online as part of their engagement with the curriculum. We will be assessing how closely student responses align with the learning objectives stated for each specific Christian practice, in particular their ability to imagine the impact the practice has on their own development and the life and development of the community within which they are working.

Overall, the goal of our workshops is to equip faculty with practices and language to bring virtue development and vocational thinking more clearly and explicitly into the research space, a place where students can sometimes struggle with a one-dimensional understanding of vocation. Bringing the conversation of virtue development more centrally into the scientific space encourages dialogue between scientists and those in other disciplines like philosophy and theology around the enhancement and implementation of virtue practices and the impact they have on the individuals and communities that practice them. Using virtue practices to build thriving community and address team science challenges is novel. This unique approach to training students focuses on equipping scientists-in-training and their mentors/teachers to think well about who they want to be and how they want to live out their callings well within the scientific community. 

References

Bech, P., Gudex, C., & Johansen, K. S. (1996). The WHO (Ten) Well-Being Index: Validation in Diabetes. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics65(4), 183–190.

Bufford, R. K., Paloutzian, R. F., & Ellison, C. W. (1991). Norms for the Spiritual Well-Being Scale. Journal of Psychology & Theology19(1), 56–70.

Carlo, G., Hausmann, A., Christiansen, S., & Randall, B. A. (2003). Sociocognitive and Behavioral Correlates of a Measure of Prosocial Tendencies for Adolescents. The Journal of Early Adolescence23(1), 107–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431602239132

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. (2016). The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment98(2), 209–221. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223891.2015.1068174

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., Tsang, J.-A., (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology82(1), 112–127. https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.82.1.112

To read the other posts in this series, see “Building a Thriving Research Team,” “Practicing Humility in the Sciences” and “The Vocation of Science.”


TS & CP (Team Science & Christian Practices): Our team vision is to create a community at Calvin where the low-profile aspects of science (such as student training, mentoring, and collaboration) are valued alongside the high-profile aspects (publications and grants). We believe that being at a Christian university provides us with the unique opportunity to explore how our faith could improve our ability to train students and participate in team-based research projects.

Julie Yonker (pictured far left) is a professor of psychology and public health. Her research focuses on positive contributors to health and well-being as well as religiosity and virtue development in emerging adulthood. The TS & CP team also includes Hannah Hooley, Rachael Baker, and Amy Wilstermann (pictured left to right). Hannah Hooley is a student, majoring in psychology and social work. She plans on pursuing her MSW and working with substance use prevention initiatives in youth. Her research assistance on this project has been invaluable. Hannah also works in the Service-Learning Center of Calvin University. Rachael Baker is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on mitochondrial rare diseases and what they teach us about the genetic basis of hearing as well as ways to serve and support the rare disease community as scientists. Amy Wilstermann is a professor of biology. Her research focuses on the molecular basis of mitochondrial rare diseases. She and Rachael are co-founders of the Rare Disease Network, a collaborative initiative focused on bringing members of the rare disease community together to learn from and support one another.

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