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Science at Brearley: Fueling Students' Innate Curiosity

eNews from Brearley was fortunate to be able to sit down recently for a chat with Science Department Head, Jim Karb, to learn more about how science is taught at Brearley.
 
Mr. Karb described how the department’s K-XII program fosters the students’ innate scientific curiosity. Teachers and students explore the biological, physical and earth sciences with an eye to medical, ethical and environmental applications. A question is posed, and students are challenged to solve it. After running an experiment, they collect and interpret data to arrive at a conclusion backed by evidence and analysis. The goal? Brearley alumnae who are scientifically literate and are able to apply their scientific knowledge and reasoning to any field or endeavor. 
 
As Mr. Karb notes, “With many lingering messages still out in the world that girls are not good at or don’t like math or science, we continue to show that through good teaching and a focus on students working together to solve scientific questions in the lab, they can lead the way--as they succeed in science at Brearley and are well prepared to use their scientific skills in college and beyond."
 
Brearley students move systematically through layers of age appropriate experiential learning and content. From K to IV they study full general science: biology, chemistry, physical and earth sciences as well as astronomy. Their first experiments start in Kindergarten. Animals such as gerbils, snakes and crayfish are studied. In Class V, robots and electricity are introduced, in the context of physics and chemistry. In Class VI, students study themselves, the human body, in great depth. Earth and physical sciences are further pursued in Classes VII and VIII, with Class VII studying density, heat and energy and applying them to weather systems, and Class VIII studying more in-depth chemistry, water, geology and plate tectonics. Scientific knowledge is applied to environmental issues. Class IX gets an introductory survey course in biology, and Class X the same in chemistry. In addition to physics, students in Class XI may choose to study advanced biology or advanced chemistry. Students can take a combination of any two of these three lab courses, and an elective non-lab course in Environmental Sustainability is also available. Class XII students have the same choice of courses, but can also take advanced physics, which is grounded in calculus.
 
In Mr. Karb’s view, the heart and soul of science teaching is lab work. On the first day, a problem is introduced, and students form groups to brainstorm. Then the class comes together again to share ideas and unify an experimental procedure. Agreement is reached on an approach, and an experimental design or plan is determined. Students break again into groups to perform the experiment, organize their data, record it and analyze their results to reach a conclusion. With the data in hand, discussion follows: what claim can we make based on the evidence?  What's your reasoning? If there’s conflicting data or if the theoretical data and experimental data are different, an explanation must be found for the difference—perhaps additional data are needed. Starting in Class IV, each student is expected to write her own report of her experimental findings.
 
There’s great enthusiasm among students. For example, in Class VII, students may be asked: “Why do you think clouds form in the sky?” And they immediately dive into the problem and eagerly write their ideas down in preparation for sharing them in a class discussion. “While there’s a range of interests among students, activities like demos, labs and class discussions fully engage them,” says Mr. Karb. In addition, Class III and IV students have the opportunity to give iPad presentations, and students in Class VI and above give at least one PowerPoint presentation a year. In Upper School students may share scientific articles.
 
Field trips supplement class and lab work. K students go for leaf walks in Carl Schurz Park, Class II studies the “three sister plants”--squash, corn and beans--and observes their interactions. Class III studies and builds bridges. Class VIII goes on a geology walk through Central Park to identify the bedrock, looking for signs of glaciation from the last Ice Age. Class IX biology students study the ecology of the intertidal zone in Cove Island Park, take an inventory of the organisms there, gather data about the environment, and analyze them to generate a report. Students in Environmental Sustainability visit the Stone Barns farm in their study of sustainable agriculture as well as the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Brooklyn.
 
A remarkable opportunity is offered to Upper School students through the Advanced Research Seminar initiated by Dr. Drew (who retired from Brearley last year) and Dr. Seminara and which now includes Dr. Saunders and Mr. Moroney. Speakers come from research institutions to discuss scientific articles they have authored. Students visit local labs. With guidance from their teachers, students choose, design and perform cutting-edge experiments and learn advanced lab techniques. They are also encouraged to apply for research internships, which may open up the possibility of entering scientific competitions. The annual Science Symposium is a celebration of all students' research, and it is most appropriate that the George Z. Tokieda Memorial Lecture (named for a beloved Brearley science teacher) was given this year by alumna Gaelin Rosenwaks '97, who spoke about "Studying Ocean Resources: Adventures at Sea." 

(Reprinted from eNews from Brearley by Jeffrey Tao.)
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