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Out of this world

Students get together to consider some challenging questions about science, philosophy and religion.

Published: 25 August 2022

Last term, Ogden enrichment lead Janinne Delorenzo helped to organise an innovative  event that brought school students together to consider questions about science, philosophy, sociology and religion.

Students from RGS Worcester, Tudor Grange Academy, St Augustine’s Catholic High School and Sixth Form, and Chipping Camden School in Gloucestershire were asked to imagine that it was the year 2122 and a planet beyond our solar system, Proxima Centauri b, had been discovered by scientists and was capable of sustaining life. They had to debate and answer the hypothetical, philosophical question: should human beings should populate this new planet?

The conference was organised by PGCE science and RE tutors from the University of Worcester who have identified a need for cross curricular events to help to develop students critical thinking and debating skills.

Janinne commented that “The conference was a huge success. The students really impressed us with their collaboration across schools and subjects, their thoughtful questions, and their understanding of the issues at stake. This was a great opportunity to bring religious and scientific studies together in an engaging way that encouraged these students to think about complex moral and ethical questions while also learning more about current day issues.”

The conference opened with a keynote by Revd Professor David Wilkinson, a theologian and astrophysicist from Durham University, entitled ‘Star Wars, Star Trek and God: Thinking about aliens in theology, science fiction and science’. He posed many challenging questions to the students around what science fiction is and why do we like it, would people of faith have a problem if we encountered aliens, and what does it mean to be human.

Students then took part in workshops to explore a range of viewpoints on whether we should colonise another planet. Led by University lecturers and local teachers, assisted by the University’s PGCE science and RE students, they explored issues such as sustainability, the environment, religion and values.

Harriet Hughes, a teacher from St Augustine’s, said: “The students had a fantastic time. They said they were all really impressed at how friendly David Wilkinson was and not what they thought a university professor would be like! They loved that he stopped to give the time to discuss questions before collecting in their ideas and felt this made the lecture really interactive. Students thought the day gave them a good idea about university life. Overall, the conference gave them a good opportunity to expand their skills in debating and critical thinking.”

Revd Professor Wilkinson said: “It was a delight to be part of such an imaginative event, providing the space for science, philosophy and religious studies to be in dialogue together. This is rarely done but the University of Worcester have pioneered this much needed initiative and do it so well.”

During the day pupils were also asked to record their position to the question before and after the sessions to see whether their opinion had shifted. The final outcome was that students decided that humankind needed to stay on earth and resolve the issues here first.

Dr Althea Wilkinson, from Manchester University, who delivered the end keynote speech on science and faith, said: “This conference took on the mind-bending topic of taking humanity to another planet, which made us think carefully about where we are as a species. The students were so engaged, and the final vote, to stay and get it right here first, made me think there is hope for humankind yet!”

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