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Having grown up attending Quaker schools, Rosalyn Berne has been sitting in meditative silence from a young age. Now, a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program of the department of Engineering and Society, Dr. Berne continues to engage in contemplative practices, frankly stating that “Contemplation is my way of life—it’s how I listen, how I am with my students.” Perhaps it is this lengthy experience with contemplative practices which generates the warm glow of authenticity and gentleness which seems to bubble around her. Dr. Berne received a doctorate in Religious Studies / Bio-ethics from the University of Virginia and now uses science fiction literature to encourage students consider how technological advancements are changing their world and their own sense of self. As part of her pedagogical work, Dr. Berne recently began teaching Science, Technology, and Contemporary Issues—a 350-person course required for all engineering students taught through the Science, Technology, and Society department.
In order to combat the overwhelming size of the course and the apparent indifference of the majority first-year students, Dr. Berne began introducing contemplative techniques to focus students’ attention: “The only way to get this giant room centered, really, was to start with silence. The contemplation at the beginning is really important, otherwise they’ll never settle in; they’ll never become present. I say to my students ‘You know the drill—what we’re about to do is be right here, right now. I know you have come from other classes; you’ve come from tests, from studying. Maybe you’re tired or you’ve been partying. But, be right here, right now. And really, that’s just what the contemplation does: pull them in and pull them down.” Based on this simple methodology, she begins each class session with five minutes of contemplative silence to allow students to become present in both the lecture hall and the course material.
In order to further develop her students’ understanding of how technology is affecting our lives, Dr. Berne combines this contemplative silence with an explicit emphasis on meaning-making. She and her students together “examine what it means to gestate your life, and the role technology is playing in that. We ask, ‘what is gender?’ and ‘what is the mind? How does our interaction with technology change our concept of self?’” Dr. Berne works to make these problems applicable to the world her students interact with every day, “to re-boot their minds to something more visible. For example, if I was teaching about something related to water, I would break the silence with them remembering what it felt like to feel the water on their way there, to feel water on their bodies, or to feel water quenching their thirst—to use their imagination to help them to figure out why what we’re talking about had meaning for them.” Having worked with engineering students for several years now, Dr. Berne feels that her focus on contemplative techniques can be particularly beneficial for their future work and careers. “I think contemplative practices balance my students and allows them to perceive themselves differently and perceive the world around them differently. As an engineer you can look at your hands, and you can see the lines and notice the shape and how the digits sit on the palm; you can see the muscles and how they work, but then what happens if you start to sense warmth in them and start to imagine them as creators as builders and all the possibilities of how they can create. It’s a different kind of awareness, different than analyzing the mechanics of them; it calls for a deeper engagement of the heart. What if we engineered the world that way?”
While Dr. Berne has received several emails from students who enjoyed the contemplative silence and found it deeply beneficial for their learning, she believes her use of contemplative practices has helped her to grow as an educator. She explains that when leading her students through a contemplative exercise, she is “completely exposed and vulnerable, but it allows me to more openly adjust to them. I have been teaching for a long time, and students are different now; they’ve been raised with two-dimensional learning. Because access is instantaneous, the relationship between students and professors has changed. I think contemplation allows me to more readily figure out how to be an effective teacher for them, because when we’re in contemplation together I can be more open to understanding ‘Who are you? What do you need? How can I provide that for you?’”