Science

An overview of the science curriculum

Science is a way of knowing, rather than a body of knowledge. The scientific outlook is one that values honesty, collaboration, skepticism, direct observation, analytical and systematic thinking, and, above all, thinking for oneself. These are the values, or habits of mind, that we hope to instill in our science students. To this end, science class is, as much as possible, a self-directed endeavor of discovery, where the teacher provides robust structure and expectations so that, within those boundaries, students can enjoy maximum freedom of the mind.

While these values guide us and set the tone, the most lasting gift that science class has to give is a set of essential skills (perhaps this is true for all of high school and beyond). The skills that we seek to develop in this class include:

  • Executive function skills, that is, skills essential to planning and carrying out tasks, such as organization, prioritization, and self-knowledge
  • Skills of discovery such as investigation, observation, and measuring.
  • Skills of discourse that allow students to interact with each other’s words and ideas in a thoughtful and productive way.
  • Reading and research strategies for scientific material (which tends to be more dense than humanities-related material)
  • Problem-solving and developing meaningful tests for ideas
  • Systematic thinking, data analysis, and pattern-finding
  • Hands-on “making” skills involved in building or growing things ourselves (as we apply our scientific understanding to the physical world)
  • Writing, particularly empircally-based scientific writing
  • Communication and presentation of information to others, including video and digital media

Along with these skills, each of the science classes also seeks to include a set of essential cross-curricular topic areas, or “currents.” These currents are intended to make our science learning relevant and therefore memorable, and to reinforce the core skills that these courses are designed to teach. They include:

  • Sustainability: understanding how our individual and community choices impact our long-term quality of life
  • Local issues: grounding our general science learning in issues that impact our local community: places we can visit, people we can talk to. We are especially partial to issues affecting our own Rock Point property.
  • Current issues: developing an understanding of what is happening in the world of science today, with a special focus on topics of interest to the students in the class.
  • Skepticism: taking every chance to help students think for themselves, be informed, and understand why they believe what they believe
  • Media literacy: helping students see that real science is shared science. Communication is an essential skill, and we will practice it in many forms.
  • Doing-It-Yourself: building students’ confidence that they can make things and grow things with their own hands, whether robots, catapults, or green beans
  • Complexity: helping students understand how many of the things we care about most are complex phenomena that emerge from many many simple interactions
  • Computer Programming: introducing students to the art of computer programming and showing how it is in fact an accessible, social, and fun tool.

The content of the classes (Biology 1 and 2, Chemistry, and Physics) is discussed below. Every class begins with a consideration of the question “What is science?” with a special emphasis on the scientific method and its application to the particular subject area of that class.

Note that the two Biology classes are stand-alone classes that can be taken in any order.
That is, Biology 2 can be taken without, or before, Biology 1.

Biology 1

The Unity of Life

One of the fascinating things about life is that, while living things are so vastly complex and varied, they also share characteristics that are shockingly uniform and unchanging. In this year of biology we look at these shared attributes, which include ecology, the cell, genetics, and evolution.

These core concepts are illustrated and brought out by exploration of the various currents listed above, in particular sustainability, local and current issues, and media literacy. We especially enjoy working with the biological laboratory that is the Rock Point property, from sampling the water of Lake Champlain to studying honeybees in the fall and maple trees in the spring, while we are busy making our own honey and syrup. We will also include earth science topics as they inform our understanding of biology, and take a brief look at the vast diversity of life (covered in more detail in Biology 2).

Biology 2

The Diversity of Life

Life on Earth is also fascinating because, while all living things share the same simple building blocks, taken together they form an unimaginably complex biosphere – quite possibly the most complex thing in the known universe. In this year of biology we dip our toes into that complexity, examining the characteristics and relevant issues surrounding microorganisms, plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and finally our own bodies.

These core concepts are illustrated and brought out by exploration of the various currents listed above, in particular sustainability, local and current issues, complexity, and media literacy. We especially enjoy working with the vast diversity of life right on our own property, including the maple trees and honeybees from which we make our own syrup and honey each year. We will also include earth science topics as they inform our understanding of biology, and take a brief look at the elements all life has in common (covered in more detail in Biology 1).

Chemistry

What the World is Made Of

Whether we are cooking a meal, filling a prescription, or simply breathing in and out, chemistry is everywhere in our lives. The goal of this course is to introduce students to the substances that make up their world and how those substances interact. We begin with understanding matter itself, its properties and changes, and the atoms and molecules that make it up. We then move on to understanding a few major categories of substances and their interactions, including acids & bases, reduction-oxidation relationships, organic molecules, and the molecules of life.

These core concepts are illustrated and brought out by exploration of the various currents listed above, in particular sustainability, current issues, skepticism, and media literacy. We especially enjoy analyzing the output of the “solar orchard” right in our backyard – a 32-unit tracking solar installation that produces about the same amount of energy used by the school in a year. A special focus is given to helping students become informed, aware consumers of the vast amount of scientific and pseudo-scientific information of the modern age.

Physics

How the World Works

All scientific understanding, in the end, is grounded in physics. It is from physics that we get the basic scientific axiom that the same basic set of forces and principles governs all events, big and small, near and far. But physics is also the most viscerally fun science, whether it involves building a catapult, launching a rocket, or trying to keep a falling egg from smashing to pieces. In this physics class, working mostly from a conceptual framework, we begin with the core ideas of mechanics, properties of matter, and heat. We then move to exploring the fascinating phenomena of  sound, electricity and magnetism, and light. Finally, we introduce nuclear physics and relativity.

These core concepts are illustrated and brought out by exploration of the various currents listed above, in particular doing-it-yourself, complexity, and computer programming. We especially enjoy any chance we get to build something ourselves and teach others about it, from Rube Goldberg machines to rockets, from Lego robots to catapults. A special focus is given to helping students become confident thinkers, makers, and communicators in the scientific realm, claiming their place in this rapidly changing world.