Winter 2015
Science: The Bigger Picture

Science: The Bigger Picture

When Laura Kaufman joined the science department in 2001, she was just out of college and unsure of what she ultimately wanted to do with her biology degree. Thirteen years and a master’s degree later, the thirdgeneration teacher has trouble believing that there was ever another choice. In the fall, Kaufman took over as chair of the Science Department, and her unique outlook on science education has already brought new energy to Prep’s science programs.

What do you see as your main role as department chair?

I want to make sure everyone in the department is supported so that they can run with their strengths and really shine. We have such a great department with a lot of diversity. There are different teaching styles and different passions within science. I want to make sure I do what I can to make their lives easier and to allow them to pursue their goals.

“Science is organized curiosity.”
— Laura Kaufman

What changes have there been in the science curriculum in the past few years?

I think as a whole, the science faculty is continuing to focus on inquiry and hands-on opportunities within their curriculum. We want more time for the students to be developing their own questions—to be taking what they’re learning in class and applying it to new situations. We hope to achieve a good balance of content and skills, so the students have the information and content knowledge that’s necessary to really understand the problems that they are asked to investigate in labs, but also acquire a real understanding of how science works so that they can become involved in the asking and the answering of their own questions.

Science: The Bigger Picture

How are the science classes students take, from biology to physics to chemistry, interconnected?

We want to make sure that we’re building a cohesive set of skills throughout the students’ timehere, from 7th to 8th grades through graduation. We really want to look at the content for each year and look for opportunities to teach different skills that link to the content, so that overall the science curriculum teaches data gathering, analysis, graphing, writing, presenting and so on.

How does science fit into the larger liberal arts education at Prep?

Science is organized curiosity. To take a question: I wonder if, I wonder how, I wonder why, and then to have the ability to approach those questions in an organized and thoughtful way, is science. At Prep, we try to de-silo scientific thinking from being specific to science class. Having the ability to ask and answer questions scientifically applies not just to science but to everything. We want students to be able to hear a fact or an opinion and to be able to separate what is based on observations and what has not yet been tested. It’s about the notion that there are skills that are being built through all the subjects; the content is important, but it’s the building of a skill set that’s critical for students to come away with.

How do you approach students who don’t seem interested in the subject?

Science can foster curiosity in everyone. If that curiosity doesn’t end up being matched up with science content, you can still foster an appreciation of science and an understanding of how to approach a question in a scientific way.

Science: The Bigger Picture

You’ve overseen the Science Fair for years. What role does it play in the Prep science curriculum?

It sets the stage for all of the future science the students will be learning. It’s perfect in the 7th grade, because the students get to pick a topic that they’re passionate about. It’s a great way to get them invested in learning skills that would potentially seem less interesting otherwise. Then they use these investigative skills throughout their next five years in science classes. In high school, we get some really amazing projects. The students who participate are often working in cutting-edge science, exploring all areas of interest in projects that go on to compete regionally, statewide and even on a national stage.

How do Community Impact Projects (CIPs) take studying the scientific method one step further?

CIPs are really unique to our science program. We challenge students to use the skills they learned in 7th grade by applying them to an area of community need. We ask them to come up with a way they think they can improve the community and then to find a way to ascertain if they actually made an impact. Science teachers Hilary Thomas, Heather Clark and I have all worked together helping the students with some really tricky science. Nonprofits really struggle to define how they make an impact, and we’re asking 8th graders to do that. It also allows them to take scientific methods and apply them to realworld problems. The project spans disciplines in the 8th grade, with history and English teachers Sarah Cooper and Megan Verbeck helping with background research and a reflective essay.