A Look at the St. Andrew’s Science Curriculum

Connecting study to purpose, faculty motivate students to make an impact through the sciences.

Published in St. Andrew’s Episcopal School magazine, spring 2021 issue

Biology, chemistry, and physics: For more than a century, they have been the foundation of science education. At St. Andrew’s, though, the way those disciplines are taught is anything but old-school.

From preschool through Grade 12, science instruction relies today on hands-on learning, not on lectures. Science fairs have been replaced by Wonder Workshops and weekly Genius Hours. Students are graduating with, on average, more than four years of Upper School science courses under their belts.

Most importantly, what truly defines science at St. Andrew’s is not biology, chemistry, and physics but rather a different triad: empathy, identity, and possibility.

Empathy, which invites SAES students to meet the needs of others as they identify scientific solutions.

Identity, which encourages a student to see herself as a scientist engaged with meaningful questions, rather than simply a kid in a science class.

Possibility, which opens up new worlds, through science that tunnels deep into the Earth, that studies space and stars, and that investigates the building blocks of life itself.

The search for answers

Human beings are wired for science.

Our natural curiosity about the world is revealed in the questions of childhood: Why is the sky blue? What happens when I drop this stuffed animal? How do I catch the ball that is coming to me?

Science is how many of these questions find answers, based in reason and logic. At St. Andrew’s, the youthful desire to understand and learn collides with teachers who encourage both finding the answers and having fun in the process.

From the very beginning, students in preschool classes will engage in design science, encouraged to “think, make, and improve” as they work individually or collaboratively.

Lower School science teacher Hilarie Hall spent her first five years at St. Andrew’s teaching grades K-2 and this year is working with grades 3-5. She explains that the faculty “give design challenges that make students, not uncomfortable, but challenged. We start that in September, and then, by March and April, they are old pros at what they are trying to do.”

Over the years in Lower School, as students grow, their science lessons introduce a broader perspective. Hall describes it as “having them think about something or someone other than themselves.”

For example, a fifth-grade project looked at the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. The assignment: Which goal is the most important?

“That’s an impossible question, right?” Hall says. “Zero hunger. No poverty. Gender equality. How do you choose the right one?

“But seeing them try to argue, ‘this is the one’ — they present their choices so well, and they’re just becoming such cool speakers for themselves. They’re getting a platform.”

When science gets personal

Such lessons address what the St. Andrew’s faculty know is a gap in many schools’ science curricula: the connection between study and purpose. Real-world topics for labs and projects help St. Andrew’s students “understand that this knowledge can be used for something, and that you can do something with it,” Middle School science teacher Ryan Marklewitz says.

Through establishing the purpose, students come to realize their individual agency. That, in turn, helps develops their identity as, if not scientists, at least scientifically capable people.

“There’s a set of knowledge and skills in science that will be useful and transferable, no matter what they end up doing,” says Dr. Ian Kelleher, an Upper School physics teacher and the Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research for the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning (CTTL).

To get there, though, one’s enthusiasm for science must be sustained through adolescence. This is a complicated matter.

As Kelleher notes, “Students in those middle years tend to get more self-doubt about what they can and cannot do.”

Hall says, “We’re talking as a school right now about how it seems to be, once [students] hit sixth grade, the joy of science drops off. How do they lose their joy for just tinkering and exploring and engineering? That’s at the forefront of our minds right now.”

Building a scientific identity is seen as part of the solution, suggests Middle School science teacher Eva Shultis, a colleague of Dr. Kelleher’s in the CTTL. Lab projects provide students with opportunities to discover scientific principles on their own, so they can “start to see themselves as scientists,” she says.

Shultis adds that adults at home and at school can play a role, too — consciously or unconsciously delivering a message about whether a student belongs in science.

“My personal big goal is just not to screw that up for anyone in Middle School,” she says.

Another contributor to identity is the ability to see yourself embodied in the scientific process. Faculty are purposeful, therefore, about showing Middle Schoolers the variety of people before them who have contributed to scientific knowledge. “Unsung heroes,” as Shultis puts it, “examples of great scientists who are from all different backgrounds, who look all different ways.”

“It’s really important for us to show [students] different ways in which they can express their identity through science,“ Marklewitz says.

Teachers also encourage self-expression from students. One sixth-grade assignment, for example, proposed that an alien lands on Earth; what little details that humanity takes for granted would this being find strange? As imaginations took flight, students were encouraged to be creative in presenting their conclusions. The result included lengthy essays, videos, even comic-book-style illustrations.

“Giving kids the freedom to express knowledge in as many ways as possible, and in ways that feel very familiar to them, is really important,” Marklewitz says. “So is exposing them to all of these multiple modalities” of how findings can be presented.

“We’re very conscious about including student voice wherever we can,” agrees Dr. Kelleher, a former chair of the science department. “And we know that student voice and student choice are great motivators.”

Rocks and stars, cells and atoms

In Lower School, St. Andrew’s pairs science instruction with art instruction in design labs. Older Lower Schoolers get to pursue individual science projects through the week, then showcase them to the class in weekly Genius Hour gatherings on Friday.

“It’s been really, really cool to see the quieter kids ask to share the video that they’ve made. It’s so empowering,” Hall says. “I don’t think that I would ever have been brave enough to do something like that as a 10-year-old.”

All Middle Schoolers in Grade 6 begin with Scientific Foundations. Geology and astronomy are areas of focus, with topics such as tectonic activity and how the Moon formed. Students learn how to measure and record data accurately and then how to analyze results. In most years, they also engage in a multidisciplinary study through a spring trip to the Chesapeake Bay.

Seventh grade introduces Life Science — everything from the individual cell to more complex systems. Students perform dissections and examine the specimens under microscopes. They also learn about brain development and human sexuality. Evolution is discussed, including how traits can change over time, as is the interaction of countless organisms in creating an ecosystem.

Physical Science in eighth grade turns the focus to physics and chemistry. Just as the cell forms the basis of Life Science, so does the atom in Physical Science. Students grow acquainted with chemical reactions and the conservation of matter before moving into Newtonian physics and energy forces.

What pervades all three courses, Shultis says, “is a lot of inquiry-based learning, paired with fact-checking.”

Lab work, for instance, helps students learn how to determine useful data and to confirm facts “that you know to be true.”

Data collection and analysis have become more central to the St. Andrew’s curriculum in recent years, Shultis says, “teaching kids to trust that the data are telling them the truth.”

The Physics-Third approach

St. Andrew’s overarching goal is to prepare each student for college, a goal that is most fully realized in Upper School as more complex principles are introduced to maturing minds.

With science, this preparation takes the form of Biology in ninth grade, Chemistry in 10th, and, typically, Physics in 11th.

A curricular model commonly known as “physics-first” (physics in Grade 9, then chemistry, and then biology) has gained traction and prominence in recent years. Dr. Kelleher calls that a “trendy vision,” hewing more closely to the needs of teachers and school administrators than those of teenagers.

“The goal for each of our courses is, first, how do we help all students feel like science is something they can do, and second, how do we help students thrive at the highest level of college courses,” he says.

Physics-first doesn’t pass that two-pronged test, Dr. Kelleher says: Students with a junior-level knowledge of math can engage with a superior level of physics than can students with freshman-level math skills. The opposite is not necessarily true with biology, a discipline that relies less on math.

Not coincidentally, St. Andrew’s students graduate having taken not only biology, chemistry, and physics but another one, two, or three science electives as well. Clearly science is something that all St. Andrew’s students feel competent to pursue.

As for college preparation, Dr. Kelleher offers that junior-level physics better prepares students to pursue a sophisticated range of junior- or senior-year electives, including Organic and Biochemistry, Robotics, and Environmental Science. That way, students can take college-level courses while still in high school.

“We teach Organic and Biochemistry instead of AP Chemistry because organic chemistry [in college] is the course that kills many people’s dreams of pursuing medicine,” he says. “We’ve designed courses that are right for what our students are going to do next, rather than stuffing our curriculum with APs.”

If a graduate goes for a premed major in college, they will already have undertaken that organic biochemistry course and perhaps an AP Biology class, to boot. A student who follows a humanities track in college will possess the knowledge of how to analyze large datasets and bring a quantitative approach to his work. And an engineering major can call upon their years of exploring physics and chemistry at St. Andrew’s to build a deep understanding of scientific principles.

“We often talk about taking the course at the right time,” Kelleher says, “finding the right pathway for each student so that they feel they’ve got that right level of challenge. It’s not too easy. It’s not too hard.”

Sometimes that right level of challenge means engineering an artificial limb or creating an exhilarating roller coaster. Or it might mean publishing in the school’s own peer-reviewed scientific journal. Regardless, learning to empathize with those who have a problem that needs solving, identifying what needs to be overcome to solve that problem, and imagining the possibilities when designing a solution are hallmarks of a St. Andrew’s science education.

And along the way, students find themselves challenged by their courses and supported by their teachers.