By Sister Rose B. Mulligan, I.H.M.

Institutions of higher education are nearing the end of the fall semester. The flurry of activities, athletic playoffs, papers and project due dates all signal the approach of this stopping point. Concluding each semester, our Immaculata students are encouraged to reflect on their learning experiences as they respond to online course evaluations.

As a chemistry professor at Immaculata, I am aware that chemistry is a source of anxiety and stress for many students. The course evaluations aid in my tweaking the content, assignments and teaching to hopefully be the most effective for the students.

The academic anxiety and stress which occurs with the onset of final exams reminded me of a book we read on campus last year by the psychologist, Jean Twenge. In her lengthy-titled work, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us,“ Twenge suggests a renaming of the current Generation Z, those born in the mid-1990s through to 2012, to now be known as the “iGeneration.”

Twenge makes the case for this renaming since this is the first generation that consists of all “digital natives.” An estimated 96% of “iGens” own a smart phone and much of their time is lived online and through virtual communication.

Twenge’s data reveals some startling trends which she correlates with this virtual, wireless super-connectedness. She notes that the “iGen” population exhibits “more anxious, stressed, and even depressed” tendencies and symptoms.

Although Twenge makes some generalizations based on her data, those who work with teens and young adults may have already recognized an increase of these concerning signs. Her data helps to place these trends in light of the powerful, culture-changing effects that the internet, smart phones and the many electronic devices have had on the human race.

The stressful thoughts of a chemistry course, added to an increased cultural stress and anxiety, are a perfect concoction for a meltdown or explosion. These are situations we try to avoid at all costs in a chemistry lab, as well as in life!

To help alleviate any chemistry concerns, we begin each class with a prayer. Our prayer generally includes 15 seconds of quite time placing our needs, concerns, anxieties into God’s hands. We then pause for 15 more seconds to express our gratitude to God, naming something specific from the previous day. The 30-second prayer period is then closed with a seasonally appropriate prayer.

Although I cannot really tell what the students are actually thinking during this prayer period, I do sense a lifted, hopeful spirit in the students. A peace settles in the room, at least for the moment!

This past year, when I read through my evaluations, I was touched by quite a few students who mentioned our prayer time at the beginning of class. Some comments included:

“I really appreciated how every class began with a prayer. Although I am Catholic, and I know other students are not, it was very nice to have a set minute or two to remind myself to just breathe, and trust God. I am sure other students were able to do the same, regardless of their beliefs.”

“… prayers before each class made getting through class time much easier.”

“Prayer before class definitely refreshes the mind and soul.”

The evaluations then also offered the usual suggestions about lectures, group work, homework and the text. However, the students’ encouraging comments related to prayer reminded me of the importance of providing opportunities to counter the current cultural trends. The students’ openness speaks of the deeper chemistry, the chemistry of the soul.

A friend once gave me a card which read, “If I were a scientist working in a big lab, I’d shout ‘Eureka!’ every so often just to boost morale.”

Although my name will most likely not be appearing on any award for a Nobel prize in chemistry, I gratefully raise my glass beaker coffee mug and pray the chemist’s amen, “Eureka!”

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Sister Rose B. Mulligan, I.H.M., PhD, is associate professor of chemistry at Immaculata University.