Our students explore the natural world in laboratory and field settings, to develop fruitful conceptual schemes, and to promote the values of scientific investigation.

Science

As we observe the surrounding world, we ask questions, search for order, construct explanations, and try to predict future events. When Roxbury Latin was founded, the exploration and conceptualization of the world was called natural philosophy. Today we call it science.

At Roxbury Latin, students explore the natural world in laboratory and field settings to develop fruitful conceptual schemes and to promote the values associated with scientific investigation: Honesty, is fundamental to reporting observations. Creativity is required to design, conduct, and interpret experiments and to invent concepts that could account for observations. Respect for others follows from the realization that science is a social enterprise that extends over thousands of years and encompasses contributions of individuals from many countries and cultures. Respect for nature is advocated in Francis Bacon’s recognition that “In order to command nature, one must first obey her.” Skepticism accompanies the incomplete, dynamic, and evolving character of science. Our journey from ignorance to partial comprehension of the world around and within us never culminates in the arrogance of absolute certainty.

Science has social as well as personal implications for our students. Scientific knowledge underlies the practical technology that provides the material basis of modern civilization, and scientific concepts provide a common language that transcends boundaries of nationality, religion, or culture. 

Science courses at Roxbury Latin, therefore, seek to acquaint students with the explorations of their predecessors, to challenge students to make their own explorations, and to introduce them to the current state of human knowledge tinged by doubt. Our science courses help students recognize the impact of science and technology on our social and material prosperity and on the environment in which we live.

Students in Classes III, II, and I are required to pass at least two laboratory science courses from the following offerings: Conceptual Physics (or Honors Physics), Chemistry (or Honors Chemistry), and/or Honors Biology—although the majority take three or more. Typically, more than 80 percent of students will have taken three or four upper level science courses, which also include Topics in Engineering and Environmental Science.

Our standard sequence of science courses is unusual: Boys begin with Honors Physics or Conceptual Physics in their sophomore year, continue with Honors Chemistry or Chemistry as juniors, and conclude with Honors Biology or Biology as seniors. Environmental Science may be taken in Class I, alone or concurrently with Honors Biology or Biology. Topics in Engineering is open to both juniors and seniors, although juniors who elect the course must take it along with Honors Chemistry or Chemistry; seniors may take it alone or concurrently with Honors Biology or Biology.

In Honors Physics, students examine the historical development of our concepts of motion, force, energy, light, and electric charge. The course culminates with a study of the structure of hydrogen atoms and atomic nuclei. That study acts as a prelude to Honors Chemistry in which boys explore patterns of chemical combination and chemical energetics related to atomic and molecular structures. Honors Chemistry develops models for various atoms and simple molecules, including some of the organic molecules so important to living creatures. With this required chemistry background, boys in Honors Biology are able to develop an understanding of the molecular basis of heredity and the genetic evolution of life. They can also relate biochemical processes to the structure and function of organisms.

Although we use college-level texts in our elective courses, these courses are not geared specifically for Advanced Placement examinations. Each year, however, a number of students prepare for and take AP science exams in physics, chemistry, and biology with advice from their teachers.

With the support and encouragement of the department, students have the opportunity to engage in research during the school year or during the summer as Richard M. Whitney Scholars. Several Roxbury Latin boys have participated in national science research competitions including a winner of the Siemens-Westinghouse Competition and five finalists in the Science Talent Search competition. RL boys have also earned places on the U.S. Physics Team for the International Physics Olympiad.

Science Courses

  • Science and Technology

    (Class VI) Science and Technology begins with an introductory unit that uses Roxbury Latin’s own 50-acre forest as a living laboratory to teach foundational skills in scientific observation, data collection, and in developing hypotheses. From there, the course is comprised of three complementary, 10-week units taken in rotation. The technology component, Our 21st-Century World, is paired with two Science Department courses, The Design of Life, and Environmental Studies. All three courses take a “hands-on” approach, pairing rigorous academic study with frequent lab activities.

    In Our 21st-Century World, students will learn about our connected digital world and how they can be creative, productive, safe, and ethical citizens within it. Computers, personal devices, apps, and networks have become so easy to use that they no longer require much understanding of the way that they actually work. Learning about what is going on “under the hood” makes it possible for students to take fuller advantage of the technology and become creative producers—not simply consumers—in the digital realm, and to understand the risks of using technology. Students will learn about transistors, bits, and bytes, and move on to learn about programming languages and the ways in which they can control a computer. The boys will practice programming with simple LEGO EV3 robots and develop an understanding of basic algorithms and programming structures. They will learn about how information moves around a network, what the Internet is, and what web pages are, building their own simple page in the process. They will close the rotation with discussions of privacy, anonymity, critical consumption, fair use, and internet ethics. 

    In The Design of Life, students study form and function in living systems. They investigate the nature of life itself, observing its remarkable unity and its incredible diversity. They consider how Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection accounts for these features of life and enables us to understand the exquisite design of cells, organs, and organisms. They develop an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry by making frequent observations of organisms in the lab. They use compound microscopes, conduct dissections, and construct models and simulations to accomplish these goals.

    In Environmental Studies, students learn about the earth’s biotic and abiotic systems and their interconnections. They discover that humans are part of these natural systems, not outside of them. From this perspective, the boys consider the impacts of human activities on the environment, focusing on issues associated with waste generation and energy use. The boys go beyond simply understanding the environmental problems society is facing; they investigate ways to overcome these challenges by meeting society’s needs in more environmentally sustainable ways.

  • Introductory Physical Science

    (Class V) Introductory Physical Science is a required, full-year course 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 partnerships 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

    (Class IV) Math-Science Investigations (MSI) is a lab-based, full-year course that provides students 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.

  • Conceptual Physics

    Conceptual Physics is a concept-based (rather than a math-based) survey course covering many of the concepts governing our physical world. Advanced math skills are not required or expected. Students focus on understanding by doing—discovering patterns and testing ideas through hands-on activities and demonstrations. Students will learn skills such as using measuring devices and the importance of uncertainty in their measurements. They will learn how to construct an experiment and how to analyze and interpret data. Topics include Newtonian mechanics (motion, forces, momentum, and energy), the geometry of optics, and a study of wave properties, including sound and light waves. Connections will be made to “real world” applications whenever possible. During the spring students will investigate electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic devices such as motors, transformers, speakers, etc. Students will have an opportunity to apply their learned concepts in several in-house competitions, such as an egg-drop challenge, a bridge building project, the design and construction of sound reproducing devices, and an electrical motor build.  

  • Honors Physics

    Honors 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. The text used is 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 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 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 science 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. Students 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 boys who wish to explore further 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 techniques 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 boys in Class I. Class II boys must secure permission of the instructor and take either Chemistry or Honors Chemistry simultaneously.