Science courses acquaint students with the scientific explorations of their predecessors and challenge them to pursue their own explorations....
Roxbury Latin’s science courses acquaint students with the scientific explorations of their predecessors, challenge them to pursue their own explorations, introduce them to the current state of human knowledge tinged by doubt, and help them recognize the impact of science and technology on our local and global society.

Students in Classes III, II, and I are required to take one laboratory science course: Physics, Biology, Chemistry, or Honors Chemistry. Boys typically begin with Physics in their sophomore year, continue with Honors Chemistry or Chemistry as juniors, and conclude with Honors Biology as seniors. However, some boys may begin with Biology and proceed to Chemistry. After completing Biology or Chemistry, boys can proceed (with permission of the department) with either Environmental Science or Engineering.

Many students prepare for and take advanced placement (AP) science exams in Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

Roxbury Latin boys have participated in national science research competitions, including a winner of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition and five finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition. Boys have also earned places on the U.S. Physics Team for the International Physics Olympiad.

Faculty Profile: Kate Chappell

  • Class Master
  • Class VI
  • Science
  • Math
  • 7th and 8th Grade Basketball Coach
"None of my classes has more than 14 boys, so I can take the time to help any students who ask for help with their lab reports, which are six to seven pages long. Asking for extra help is a good thing at Roxbury Latin. It’s a sign of strength, not of weakness."

Science Courses

List of 9 items.

  • Natural Design

    For boys in Class VI, three individual courses taken in rotation comprise the required subject, Natural Design: two complementary, 10-week science courses, The Design of Life and Environmental Systems, combined with a 10-week course on The Art of Construction. All three components of Natural Design take a “hands-on” approach, pairing rigorous academic study with frequent lab and studio activities that keep the boys on their feet and on the go.

    In The Art of Construction, boys investigate architectural plans and models and use them to construct a full scale design. The principles of linear perspective, structure, support, and the formal elements of three-dimensional design are studied and put into practice. The course begins with a discussion of the forces of tension and compression in various arches (Gothic, Roman, Catenary), and group construction projects on campus follow. As a culminating exercise, boys produce a detailed design of a wood project using an established architectural style—i.e., Classic, Gothic, Georgian, Modern. The boys are required to develop a portfolio of research and design plans working toward a scale model (using various materials) and, finally, a finished wooden structure. Along the way, the boys consider various construction materials and techniques, and learn the proper use of hand tools to construct their project. Both structural integrity and aesthetic considerations are important in the final review and evaluation of their designs.
    In The Design of Life, students study form and function in living systems. We investigate the nature of life itself, observing its remarkable unity and its incredible diversity. We consider how Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection accounts for these features of life and enables us to understand to the exquisite design of cells, organs, and organisms. We develop an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry by making frequent observations of organisms in the lab. We use compound microscopes, conduct dissections, and construct models and simulations to accomplish these goals.

    In Environmental Systems, students learn about the earth’s living and non-living systems and how they are connected to one another. Through laboratory work and discussions, the boys investigate how water, carbon, and nitrogen cycle through the environment, as well as how organisms capture the sun’s energy and transfer it through the biosphere. Understanding that people are part of these natural systems, not outside of them, the boys also consider the impacts of human activities on the environment. We begin with an overview of human population growth and environmental ethics, and discuss Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” The students then examine the environmental impacts of modern agriculture and energy use. The theme is not “doom and gloom,” but rather one of hope and innovation, that encourages the boys to think about new ways society can confront environmental challenges and live in a more environmentally sustainable manner. Throughout the course, students use the Roxbury Latin forest as a living laboratory to observe ecosystems in action, and to learn the tools and techniques of environmental science.
  • Introductory Physical Science

    Introductory Physical Science, a full-year course required for boys in Class V, is devoted to the study of matter. The curriculum follows the Introductory Physical Science (IPS) text for most of the year. The course is designed to have each class section act as a research team. Through an extensive series of laboratory exercises, the class investigates characteristic properties of substances. The course begins with wood distillation that yields charcoal and a variety of “smelly liquids and gasses.” To investigate such substances further, boys learn techniques for measuring mass and volume in metric units. After a series of exercises to develop the idea of mass conservation in physical and chemical changes, they examine densities, boiling points, and solubilities of substances. The mathematics of power-of-ten notation, ratios, and proportions is reviewed as needed here. Students use differences in characteristic properties to separate substances from mixtures. Then comes the “Sludge Lab”: student partners are given mystery mixtures and asked to separate and identify the mixture’s substances during a two-week period.

    Following this exercise, boys experiment to distinguish elements from chemical compounds. The course becomes more project-oriented during the spring with a focus on the connection between chemical processes and the environment. Each boy investigates the sources, properties, uses, and safe disposal methods for a particular chemical element. His research forms the basis of a class presentation and a written report. This project connects our laboratory work with industrial and environmental concerns in the wider world. Another major project explores water systems in the environment from a pond on campus to the Charles River to another major water system in the U.S. or in the wider world. Municipal water sources, water quality parameters, and wastewater treatment processes are examined. Students learn about marine systems during a field trip to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. They perform an array of laboratory tests on samples gathered from several locations along the Charles River and present reports on their results. Since the results of the course largely depend on student measurements in the laboratory, boys experience measurement uncertainty, the importance of careful observation and accurate description in notebooks, and the collective nature of the scientific process.
  • Math-Science Investigations (MSI)

    Math-Science Investigations (MSI) is a lab-based, full-year course that provides all Class IV boys the opportunity to investigate how we use energy and materials to shape and control the world around us. Boys do this in an interdisciplinary context, exploring ideas in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics, collectively known as STEAM. Boys are active learners in this course, discovering concepts through investigation and experimentation and completing projects, often in collaboration, of increasing complexity over the course of the year. They also become immersed in the “maker” culture, building the creative confidence to use newfound skills, tools, and technologies to approach challenging problems.
  • Biology

    Biology is a survey course for students without a background in chemistry. The course is based on Campbell, et al., Biology: Concepts and Connections. The course begins with introductions to chemical and biochemical reactions and biological evolution. Within the context provided by these micro- and macro-perspectives, the course examines cell structure and function, reproduction and development, Mendelian and chromosomal genetics, and plant and animal anatomy and physiology. Particular attention is given to human anatomy, physiology, and genetics. The course also examines current interest topics such as genetic and reproductive technologies, issues surrounding food production and nutrition, the evolution-creationism debate, and global climate change. Frequent laboratory exercises advance and illustrate the conceptual material.
  • Physics

    Physics is the study of matter and energy in our natural world. In this course, students explore both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of these topics. While conceptual understanding is paramount, students have many opportunities to practice the scientific process by observing phenomena, designing experiments, and collecting and analyzing data while drawing and presenting conclusions. Such lab-based and project-based learning is used throughout the course. After an introduction to the scientific method, the course moves quickly into kinematics—the study of space and time and how things move, including one and two-dimensional motion. Dynamics, the study of forces and why things move, follows, and includes an introduction to Newton’s famous laws of motion. Students apply these laws while investigating various types of motion, including circular, rotational, orbital, and oscillatory. We then investigate the energy and momentum of particles during various interactions, including collisions. Whereas the first semester focuses on the physics of particles and energy, the second semester focuses on the physics of waves and energy (mechanical waves, sound waves, and electromagnetic waves including light). Topics include the study of sound waves, electrostatics and electrical fields, electricity and DC current, magnetism, and electromagnetic induction. Finally, we review interactions between light and matter, culminating in the introduction of the early quantum theory. Text: Giancoli, Physics 6th Edition, published by Pearson, Prentice Hall.
  • Chemistry and Honors Chemistry

    Chemistry and Honors Chemistry examine patterns of structure and change in the world of matter and energy around us. Texts are Wilbraham, Staley, and Matta, Chemistry for Chemistry; and Brown, LeMay, and Bursten, Chemistry, the Central Science for Honors Chemistry. The courses incorporate introductory lab exercises and a thorough study of chemical stoichiometry, gas laws and kinetic theory, qualitative advanced views of electronic structure in atoms and chemical bonds between atoms, colligative properties, reaction mechanisms, catalysis, equilibrium, properties of acids and bases, and some organic chemistry. Honors Chemistry is by permission of department and considers these topics in more depth than does Chemistry. Frequent laboratory exercises and classroom demonstrations develop and illustrate the critical connection between theoretical hypotheses and direct observation. In the laboratory, students practice safe techniques of working chemistry, the mechanics of measurement, solution preparation, and safe disposal of chemical wastes.
  • Honors Biology

    Honors Biology is by permission of department and culminates a thorough education in the sciences at Roxbury Latin. It is offered to members of Class I who have completed Chemistry or Honors Chemistry. The course text is Campbell, et al., Biology: Concepts and Connections. Readings and discussions assume a working knowledge of physical science. A solid understanding of the physical basis of biological processes allows students to appreciate the mechanisms that govern life forms from viruses to homo sapiens. Evolution is the ordering theory of biology that provides the context in which all other topics are developed. Major topics include ecosystems, biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, anatomy, and physiology. Molecular mechanisms are emphasized. For all topics, plant and animal systems are examined in the laboratory and in class discussion. Frequent laboratory exercises enhance and illustrate the conceptual material. Also, in consultation with working scientists, students design and execute an experiment to answer a biological question of their own choosing.
  • Environmental Science

    Environmental Science is another culmination of a thorough education in sciences at Roxbury Latin. Completion of Chemistry and Biology is required of boys electing Environmental Science along with permission of the department. In 2011, the human population reached 7 billion. If current trends continue, the population could reach 10 billion within the lifetime of today’s Roxbury Latin students. Is our growing population’s use of natural resources—forests, agricultural lands, oceans, fresh water, fossil fuels—sustainable? Are the ways in which we meet society’s needs today going to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs? If so, what changes can be made in current natural resource use patterns? In Environmental Science, each student develops and defends his own answer to these questions. While the course focuses on the science behind the earth’s biotic and abiotic systems and the ways in which humans are impacting them, students also discuss the economic, societal and cultural barriers to change, and the opportunities to overcome these barriers through education, public policy, technological advancement, and individual actions. 

    Throughout the year, students use the Roxbury Latin forest as a living laboratory, observing and investigating the earth’s ecological and physical systems. Topics include energy flows, the hydrologic cycle, biogeochemical cycles, biodiversity, species interactions, soils, climate and weather, and forestry. They uncover the geologic and written history of the Roxbury Latin forest, and take an in-depth look at the many ecosystem services it provides today. The students use their local forest explorations as a platform for learning about the world’s other major biomes and aquatic ecosystems, and for considering the range of impacts that human actions are having on the environment. The course texts are Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape (published by The Countryman Press) and Environment, 8th Edition, by Raven, Hassenzahl and Berg (published by Wiley). 
  • Topics in Engineering and Design

    Topics in Engineering and Design is a full-year course for upplerclass boys who wish to further explore and apply their skills in mathematics, science, and art to authentic problems with global significance. Boys develop a framework for analytical problem solving and decision making through a series of directed challenges in a range of engineering fields. They learn basic principles of mechanical and electrical design, then extend these principles and techiques of analysis to more complex human and environmental systems. Throughout this process, boys discover the meaning of “engineering” and develop senses of personal and professional responsibility for their communities and the complex systems in which they operate. Students frequently collaborate on short- and long-term projects, actively using technology and research to solve unique problems. The course is available to all seniors and to juniors with permission of the instructor and each boy’s advisor.