Episode 6: Teaching at the Intersection of Science and Faith

  • Upper School
Episode 6: Teaching at the Intersection of Science and Faith


Our final episode of the first season of Bear Conversations features a conversation with Donna Dunn, long-time Upper School science teacher and department chair. She talks about why she loves teaching science in a Christian liberal arts school.

About Donna Dunn

Donna Dunn Biotech JanTerm

Donna Dunn is a biology teacher with an affinity for all things small; her degrees are in microbiology and molecular biology. For a number of years, she researched viral encephalitides at Colorado State University, in cooperation with the Center for Disease Control’s Vector-borne Viral Diseases Division in Fort Collins, Colorado. Upon moving to Seattle, Donna worked for Microsoft, translating manuals into German.

As her children grew and entered school, Donna found great joy in teaching in their classrooms, playing show-and-tell with spiders and dissected sharks. For a time, Donna taught Outdoor Ed courses with Habitrek before being called by God to teach at Bear Creek in 1997. At that time, the school was K – 9, and Donna taught grade 8 earth science and grade 9 physical science. As the students grew older, she grew with them, teaching chemistry to grade 10, and at last finding permanence with the juniors, teaching her true love, biology. Throughout her tenure at Bear Creek, she has served in many areas, including teaching Senior Capstone Project, classical rhetoric, health, and anatomy/physiology, as well as developing the Upper School community service and mission programs. 


During this conversation, Patrick talked with Donna about books, podcasts, and places to visit that you may be interested in learning more about.

Episode Transcript

Patrick (00:00):
Welcome to Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School in Redmond, Washington. I'm Patrick Carruth, Bear Creek's President and Headmaster for nearly 15 years. In today's episode, I'm talking with Upper School Science Department Chair Donna Dunn about how God called her to Bear Creek and how the sciences are an integral part of learning at a Christian liberal arts school.

Patrick (00:27):
Donna, thanks for taking the time to be here today. We've known each other for quite some time. So, I'm thrilled that we get to have a conversation about Christian liberal arts and about science. So, thanks for taking the time today.

Donna (00:39):
I'm glad to be here.

Patrick (00:40):
So, you've been at Bear Creek quite some time. I'm going to let you talk about that. Why don't you tell the audience about what drew you to Bear Creek? Why you stayed so long at Bear Creek?

Donna (00:52):
All right. Teaching is my third career. I came to it later, and I wasn't even thinking about it at the time that I made this shift. What happened? My daughter was going on outdoor ed, her sixth-grade class. And I was asked as someone who knew a little about science to come along. This was another school. I think we went to Whidbey Island. And so, one day I was standing under this brilliant shade tree and the sun was shining and I was teaching these 30 sixth graders about the carbon cycle. And for some reason they were paying rapt attention. I was like, wow! We were just connecting. And I thought, this is great. I loved it. It was like this moment.

Donna (01:38):
And so on the drive home, it was about an hour and a half. I prayed, Lord, is this what you want me to do? This would be really fun. I got home. I walked in the door and the phone rang and it was Christie Hazeltine, the Admissions Director at Bear Creek. She knew me from church. And she said, "Would you be interested in applying to a job at Bear Creek? We need an eighth and ninth grade science teacher." So I came in, I interviewed with Nancy Price, the founder of Bear Creek. She cast a compelling vision. She's highly persuasive and persuaded me that I could do it. And so I started teaching. That was 25 years ago.

Patrick (02:22):
That's cool. How the Lord works that you got home and the door was open and the phone rang.

Donna (02:26):
The phone rang. So I think all teachers at Bear Creek believe that teaching is a vocation, a calling from God. And I just liked to say mine was an actual call with a voice on a landline.

Patrick (02:38):
Oh, that we would all receive those calls. Makes things a lot clearer sometimes.

Donna (02:42):
That's right. It would just make things really clear, wouldn't it?

Patrick (02:44):
You said Nancy cast a really compelling vision. What was compelling about it?

Donna (02:48):
Lots of facets to that, but in the conversation she helped me understand not just that I could fulfill this desire I had to teach science and faith, but also what it might be to come alongside really quality teachers in a high quality education and do this together as a community that really desired that.

Patrick (03:14):
And have you found that to be the case?

Donna (03:16):
Absolutely. I love being part of the larger Bear Creek community. It's one of the things I love about not just our students, but their parents, how much they value a quality education. I love that.

Patrick (03:31):
That's great. That's great. And you're a big part of that is as I hope you know.

Donna (03:34):

Patrick (03:34):
So in your time here at Bear Creek, you've taught a lot of different subjects. What have you taught and what's been your most favorite thing or things to teach?

Donna (03:44):
I love everything I teach. I end up loving it because I like to learn new things. I have filled in when there was a hole if I knew a little bit. We've had a health teacher leave for some unexpected reasons and I taught health to my daughter's class. She wasn't thrilled.

Patrick (04:04):
That as uncomfortable for her.

Donna (04:04):
Yes. Right. I taught classical rhetoric for a while and loved teaching. That was really fun. So when I came ninth grade was the highest grade and that was introductory physics. Eighth was earth science and still is. So I just moved up, taught chemistry and then finally biology, which is what my background's in. And so I really love teaching that. And I've kind of stayed in that general realm ever since with the addition of one of my favorite classes, which is Senior Capstone.

Patrick (04:33):
And I recall you and I having a conversation at some point, because you're a lover of poetry. You're an embodiment of this whole liberal arts thing. Have you ever taught poetry or what's the poetry connection?

Donna (04:45):
No, I don't know if I could because don't you have to explicate it and break it down? And I just, I love reading it. So I admire our English teachers and what they do with writing and poetry. I just enjoy. I didn't grow up in grade school and middle school loving science.

Patrick (05:07):

Donna (05:08):
I loved English.

Patrick (05:09):

Donna (05:10):
I thought that's what I would study. My favorite book was Norton's Anthology of English Literature.

Patrick (05:15):
Yes. The really big one?

Donna (05:17):
The really big one.

Patrick (05:17):

Donna (05:17):
Volume two not volume one.

Patrick (05:21):
Did you have the paperback or a hardback?

Donna (05:23):
I had the hardback with lots of highlights. Just sat by my bed for about seven years. And I love poetry in there and Shakespeare. Would just memorize it for fun. But in high school I was good at science. And there was a move for more women in science and my counselors, my parents, they were all very enthusiastic. So I thought, well, I'll try this. That's how I ended up there.

Patrick (05:47):
How has that worked out? How has your love of science worked out at Bear Creek? That and what do you like about your students and their engagement in science with you?

Donna (05:56):
I'll tell what kind of transitioned my little experiment in science to a true love, which was a college class. And I think that happens to a lot of our alums, too. You go to college and you're headed one way and then you have this amazing class. Mine was Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases.

Patrick (06:18):
Oh, well that's timely.

Donna (06:20):
It was, a long time ago, too.

Patrick (06:22):

Donna (06:22):
And I just loved it. I loved the lectures, the labs, the 4,000-page textbook. Well, maybe it was only 1,200 pages. And I started TA-ing for the professor and then went to grad school and pursued research in molecular biology and virology. In science I enjoy molecules. They're my favorite things and viruses, which are little packets of molecules, really, proteins and DNA.

Patrick (06:52):
I'm not sure I've heard many people say viruses are my favorite things.

Donna (06:56):
I know! One of the things I learned when I started teaching marine biology, which is one of our more recently added courses, is about the positive role viruses have in the ocean. Who knew?

Patrick (07:09):
Yes, exactly.

Donna (07:09):
And so, they're not just...

Patrick (07:12):
Things that we think are bad.

Donna (07:13):
They get a lot of bad press right now.

Patrick (07:15):

Donna (07:15):
I love molecular biology, which helped me teach AP Bio(logy). And I think we've inspired some students, between the chemistry teacher and myself, to go into biochemistry or other fields that are challenging, but also really rewarding. Molecules are invisible, and I like helping students grasp what's abstract. So that's been a really fun part of teaching.

Patrick (07:39):
Making the invisible, visible to them?

Donna (07:41):
Yes. Visible. Through faith, we understand that the worlds were made by the Word of God and the things that are seen are made of things that aren't seen.

Patrick (07:51):
That's great. You and I had a conversation when COVID started, a little bit of a segue related to your passion for infectious diseases and viruses, and I remember us having a conversation about the science that was being reported. And me checking in with you, like what do you think? And it was super helpful for you to be able to validate various things, to give us a perspective back in March of 2020. And I think you and I even toyed with the idea of, can we do testing here?

Donna (08:19):
We did!

Patrick (08:20):
We decided that wasn't necessarily a good idea, but we thought about seeing if maybe students could learn through that testing. So, I appreciate your experience in that area.

Donna (08:28):
We do a JanTerm that doesn't test for COVID, but we do PCR.

Patrick (08:32):
Oh wow!

Donna (08:33):
The kinds of tests that would test for COVID.

Patrick (08:36):
Oh, that's cool.

Donna (08:36):

Patrick (08:37):
So, Donna frequently, when we talk about the Christian liberal arts and of course, Bear Creek's a Christian liberal arts school, people think that's only related to the humanities. And since you're in the sciences, I'd love to know from your experience, how does the Christian liberal arts work in a science classroom? How does it translate?

Donna (08:54):
Often when I go to professional conferences, I'm asked, "How can you teach science at a Christian school?" And I tell them, "We teach very high-quality science," first of all. But I also tell them the two aren't antithetical. And I like to have that conversation with my students. I think those great conversations are part of a liberal arts school. So, it's not just the content of science what's in the textbook. But going beyond that to say, what's the significance of this in our world. And what's the significance of that to our faith? What does it mean to know? And how does faith support science and science support faith? There's some confluences between them. In science, we're really determined to be honest about what we don't know. Uncertainty is something we value. And I think in the Christian faith, too, open, honest questions asked with humility to say, I don't have all the answers here are a valuable part of our faith journey.

Donna (09:54):
I think in the classroom one of the things that happens is that students want the answer sometimes. And I've wanted sometimes to supply that answer. Students can get frustrated. I remember students were broken into small groups where they were discussing evolution and the Christian beliefs about creation and how those impacted each other. And one girl was very frustrated with me as the class was wrapping up that I wasn't providing one answer to that question. And the bell rang, and she left with steam coming out of her ears, but she came back and thanked me. She said, "I didn't understand at the time that there's a process to understanding and there are pieces to that puzzle. So, thank you for not answering the question." And the piece I love about teaching at a Christian liberal arts school is I'm one of a tremendous collection of teachers who are having great conversations. So, I don't have to solve the problem or provide the answer. But together we're working to build into student lives the ability to see truth.

Patrick (11:07):
Why do you think, you mentioned at the very beginning, when you go to conferences that people say how do you teach science at a Christian school? Why do they disconnect those two things and ask you that question?

Donna (11:17):
I think culturally, there are some perceptions that Christians disagree with or dismiss some of the major tenets of science like the question of human origins or origin of life on the planet. We have a story, a narrative about how God played a role in that, that a cadre of scientists dismiss and are hostile toward. So, it seems to set up an antagonistic relationship, but the truth is, there are lots of scientists who are Christian. There are lots of scientists who are agnostic or atheists who love their Christian scientist colleagues. And can appreciate that God could have had a role in the creation of the world.

Patrick (12:07):
Oh, okay.

Donna (12:07):
So, I think there's a lot more harmony than is imagined at a popular cultural level.

Patrick (12:15):
More harmony, less dichotomy, and folks think of it in terms of dichotomy and opposite.

Donna (12:20):
Yes, correct.

Patrick (12:21):
You also mentioned that the student thanked you for letting her sit in the problem and not giving an answer.

Donna (12:28):

Patrick (12:28):
How do you do that? I would think that science is, as you express, it seems like, well, there's a right answer and there's a wrong answer because you're doing measurements and empirical stuff. And so frequently you're getting an A or B. How do you let kids sit in the unknown space in a class where they're like, "Well, it's A or B."

Donna (12:45):
That's a great question. One of the things we are trying to show students is that science might provide data, but that's not the answer. It's part of a process of understanding. So, no single piece is definitive in itself. And so, I think as a science teacher I have to teach what is known today in science, helping students see how we got there, how it might not be the final answer, how that might change because look at how science has changed over the years. And then if there is relevant conflict to have students talk about it, to say, here's what science says. Here's what the Bible says. Are these actually in conflict? And let's discuss that.

Patrick (13:35):
Interesting. So you lean into the, whatever the it is, if it's a controversial topic or it's something in science that's unsettled you lean into that and put that before them?

Donna (13:45):
That's what we like to do.

Patrick (13:48):
That's interesting. I find it fascinating how science and your articulation of it could foster intellectual humility as opposed to intellectual arrogance. As soon as you said science has got a lot of stuff wrong. I'm thinking like the Ptolemaic model and the Copernican model and we always get it some right, some wrong every time.

Donna (14:06):
Right. So, you're just building on the shoulders of the scientists who came before and some of them are right and some of them wrong and many of them, I think like artists, were not appreciated during their lifetime. So, it's kind of fun to see the process of science, which I think as a liberal arts school, it's worth taking the time to study what came before.

Patrick (14:27):
That's good. You also mentioned that you have taught Capstone, which is a little bit different. Tell me a little bit about Capstone and your experience there and how that helps to shape students in the liberal arts.

Donna (14:39):
Senior Capstone is an amazing class. It's actual name on the transcript right now, I think is Christianity and Contemporary Culture.

Patrick (14:49):
Okay. C3 or something.

Donna (14:50):
Yes. Sort of a mouthful. So, it still gets affectionately referred to as Capstone. So, the seniors in the first semester read two different books, and the text is our teacher. The first one is Niebuhr's, Christ and Culture. And the second is James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love.

Donna (15:10):
The other day in class we were just talking about some of the underlying assumptions and the subconscious liturgies that shape us as humans. And the conversation was so good. And the kids were saying things, their insights were really profound. And I was thinking if I were to write this down, it would make a great additional chapter to Jamie Smith's book. It was so good! And I think what's so cool about that is, our mission statement says, "Our desires to flourish these students as the individual that God intends." And their senior year, when they've been here at least a few years typically, and maybe 13 or 14 even, we get to see a little piece of the culmination of that journey. You know what the second-grade teachers built into them, or the ninth-grade teachers and they built into each other. So, they've really learned how to have a good discussion in a respectful way. And I think that's just such an essential piece of both their college journey, but life right now. When people can get pretty acrimonious, our students know how to lean in a respectful and a humble way into a conversation.

Patrick (16:29):
Yes, that's good. We talked about wanting students to engage the culture with wisdom, compassion, courage when they leave.

Donna (16:34):

Patrick (16:35):
I think we are in need of that as a culture. So that intellectual humility and prepping that them for that is powerful.

Donna (16:42):
It is powerful. There also were a couple of sessions with the head of school. And so, you came in and talked to the seniors maybe four days?

Patrick (16:56):
I think. I mean, maybe so.

Donna (16:57):
The feedback after that is just so positive in terms of how that builds relationships for them and trust. I overheard one senior tell a freshman, "Well, ask me and I'll ask Mr. Carruth. He answers anything we want to ask." And they love it. So, thanks for doing that.

Patrick (17:17):
Well, it's fun. It's been my pleasure. You mentioned relationships and that's a big part of what we do here, community and relationships. Could you tell me about some of the, just the favorite things about your relationships with students or with colleagues? What's it like to be in this community at Bear Creek?

Donna (17:33):
One of my favorite things about our students is that they'll laugh at my jokes because I have a teacher who's a friend who says, "Teachers are failed comedians."

Patrick (17:44):
This might be true.

Donna (17:48):
What I appreciate when a student laughs at my not-so-great jokes is that it takes a certain generosity of spirit to do that. And so, there's an openness in our students. There's a desire to be a part of something. And so, they will laugh with me and together with each other as part of a community. And I think that laughter builds relationships, and I believe that relationships are the engine of learning. And so, I really appreciate our students' generous hearts, their willingness to be with us in a classroom and to learn. And then the other thing I really love about our students and being here is that sometimes our kids get a little grade obsessed as they get thinking about a transcript and getting closer to college apps. But for the most part they really value what they're learning, just to be able to learn to them is an important thing. So, they can articulate the value of a quality education and that they want to pursue that. They're not just here because their parents asked them to be here. They really value what's happening in this place. And I think we've seen, over the years, one of the things they value a lot and I think you've seen this when you've asked students for feedback.

Patrick (19:08):
Like on exit interviews and stuff.

Donna (19:08):
Yes. They value their teachers. And to be a part of that is amazing. I think James Woollard mentioned how he's been impacted and shaped.

Patrick (19:19):
James is our, I think his technical title is Director of Information Systems. He does a lot of system stuff and our registrar and scheduler, and he does a million things.

Donna (19:27):
He does a million things! So James was talking just about how the people in this place have shaped him. And it made me think a lot, too, about over the years what I have learned from my colleagues would fill a huge book. When I first started teaching, I hadn't taught before, and Sherrie Brown, who was seventh-grade introductory biology teacher. We started teaching at the same time and teacher had, had health issues and had to leave. And so I took half the science classes and Sherrie took the other half.

Patrick (20:02):

Donna (20:02):
We come in brand new. They've never met us before.

Patrick (20:06):
Had Sherrie been teaching or you all were both very new?

Donna (20:07):
Yes, brand new. We were both brand new together. And Sherrie spent several days getting to know the students. I came in, I lectured for 45 minutes on the atmosphere without any breaks or interaction with the students. And then I read from the Bear Creek handbook about dignity and responsibility and Bear Creek values. And they just looked with really glazed eyes. When I saw what Sherrie's doing I was really puzzled. I didn't understand. I said, "Why?"

Patrick (20:43):
What was Sherrie doing?

Donna (20:44):
She was doing icebreaker activities and talking to students and getting to know them.

Patrick (20:50):
Okay, get to know you.

Donna (20:51):
I was like why? Why are you doing this? She taught me the first thing I learned about teaching was students want to learn when they know you. And so it's that relationship piece that really helps to fuel learning.

Patrick (21:06):
Yes. Well, I very much have seen that in you with your colleagues and your students. I know that you lead a prayer group, Praying Like Elijah, with the faculty. Is that right? What's the motivation for that?

Donna (21:16):
When I first came, the teachers prayed together, and there were maybe six of us in the Middle School at the time. And that was one of the things that really shaped me as a teacher was to sit and listen to other teachers ask God to change the hearts and minds of their students and to be present in their teaching. And so I've just really valued the ability to meet together and to pray for our kids in this place. The teenage years can be a little chaotic or tumultuous. And I just think it's really important to lift them up to God. And then we pray for each other, too. And it really strengthens the bond that we have with each other.

Patrick (22:04):
Yes. One of the things I really appreciate about you is in that phrase, in our mission statement, "high-quality Christian, liberal arts," it's easy to get stuck in the content, which is not to say we shouldn't teach content. But what I really appreciate about what you said here is that there's integration in the Christian content, but we teach students. And so there is integration in the individual student and their faith as well. And that integration happens when they see us living that out.

Donna (22:31):

Patrick (22:31):
And when we're able, to speak into their lives. We teach students first. We teach subject second. And they're both very important, and they're both integrated. I really appreciate that about you.

Donna (22:40):
I had to learn. And that is what my colleagues taught me.

Patrick (22:44):
Don't we all? We all have to learn that. That's all a journey.

Donna (22:46):
I felt like I had arrived one year when at the end of AP Bio, which can be quite a challenging year, I asked students to write a letter to next year's students giving them advice. And I had one girl who wrote something like, "If you don't want Mrs. Dunn to know what you're thinking don't look at her because she'll know and she'll want to help you with it." So, I felt like when I had really, I like the anthropology and psychology piece of teaching, I really saw them as people, and they knew that I saw them and knew that I loved them. I really felt like that was a shift for me because I'm such a science geek. And I would've loved to just stuff their little brains full of information because there's lots of cool facts to know.

Patrick (23:40):

Donna (23:40):
But just the ability to see and love them has been a great thing.

Patrick (23:44):
Well, now I'm nervous. If we do another one of these, I'm wearing sunglasses or something.

Donna (23:47):

Patrick (23:49):
Because now you know exactly what I'm thinking. Don't look at her. So, to wrap up a little bit here, tell the audience some of the things that you are passionate about. What are you reading? What are you doing? What kind of podcasts or things are you listening to? What really animates your passion?

Donna with Marine Biology Students

Donna and her Marine Biology students during a field study in the Rocky Intertidal Zone in May 2022.

Donna (24:05):
I love anything in the outdoors. My favorite day would probably be in the Rocky Intertidal Zone. I love...

Patrick (24:13):
Wait, wait. Back up. In the what?

Donna (24:14):
Rocky Intertidal Zone.

Patrick (24:16):
What is that?

Donna (24:16):
Tide flows.

Patrick (24:18):
Oh, okay.

Donna (24:19):
Just exploring and looking... For years was able to take students to the Rocky Intertidal Zone and it really teaches how to be observant and how to marvel and wonder at creation because at first they'll look in a tide pool and they'll say, "Well, there's not anything there." And then the longer they look, the more they see. And so I still, just for myself, I love to go and find something that isn't easy to see, just to explore. So that's a favorite day would be to go to the ocean. I love to read. Right now I'm really excited to finally be finishing Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology: Volume One and she just published volume two.

Patrick (25:05):
That sounds heavy.

Donna (25:07):
They're big. But they're, she's a brilliant writer and they really just enlarged my view of God. So I loved that book. And then podcasts, I'd like recommendations from you by the way. But in January of 2020, I discovered a podcast called This Week in Virology.

Patrick (25:28):
Oh, interesting.

Donna (25:29):
It's very timely as well. But it's been going on since 2010 and it's like four to six virologists. Well, one's an immunologist. And so they just sit and talk about current topics. So for 18 months they talked about SARS-CoV-2.

Patrick (25:43):
Of course.

Donna (25:44):
Now they're getting back to other viruses a little bit. So, it's abbreviated TWIV, and I am an avid TWIV-er. That's my podcast go-to. What about you? What do you like?

Patrick (25:57):
The only podcast I really listen to is R. C. Sproul. He's got a podcast, two of them. One's really short, one's long, Renewing Your Mind.

Donna (26:06):
Oh yes.

Patrick (26:06):
And I've listened to him for quite some time. He was instrumental in me coming to faith. And then Eternally (the corrected title is Ultimately). So those are the ones I've been listening to.

Donna (26:12):

Patrick (26:13):
Well, I appreciate the time today, Donna. This has been great getting to chat with you, and I'm grateful to you for your time here and for the impact you've had on the lives of students and for taking some time to chat.

Donna (26:24):
Well, thank you. It means a lot to be a part of this community and you have a substantial impact on it. So I really appreciate all that you've contributed.

Patrick (26:34):
Well, that's very kind and you do as well. I think very highly of you and the kids do as well. So thanks for that legacy.

Donna (26:40):
Thank you.

Patrick (26:41):
Thank you for listening to our first season of Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School. You can find the show notes from this episode on our website at tbcs.org/podcast. Join us next fall for more conversations with our Bear Creek faculty, students, and alumni. And subscribe to or follow our podcast to automatically receive the first episode of our next season.