Stevenson is premised on a vision of education as the means by which we discover the world and contribute to its transformation. The School’s new science curriculum now provides an especially compelling example of what this can look like in practice when teachers receive the support and encouragement they need to innovate and collaborate.
Recent research in science education has demonstrated that the most effective way to help students authentically understand science and to apply it in meaningful ways is to invite their close attention to the world around us. On this basis, Stevenson’s teachers redesigned their approach to harness the power of the School’s unrivaled setting on California’s Central Coast, overlooking what has long been celebrated as the world’s “greatest meeting of land and sea.”
As a result, Stevenson’s science curriculum—across all three divisions—now takes fuller and more integrated advantage of the distinctive ecosystems and natural features surrounding our campuses. Students learn in places like the Del Monte Forest, Monterey Bay, the Carmel River watershed, Los Padres National Forest, the Salinas Valley, and Elkhorn Slough, and they use these natural landscapes to explore lessons in life science, earth science, physics, chemistry, and beyond.
Additionally, Stevenson has built robust partnerships with many of the local area’s world-class research institutes, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, Naval Postgraduate School, and San Jose State’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. These world-class facilities, staffed by prominent researchers, provide motivated students with a remarkable vantage on the rigors and rewards of “professional science.”
Ron Provost, who teaches in the upper division, uses marine biology as a platform to teach first-year students about the science of sea life—but also as an opportunity to teach them about the greater diversity of the biological world at large. The lessons have greater impact by taking place in the field.
Mr. Provost explains, “We have an incredible opportunity to observe all of these organisms that live within a five-minute drive from campus. Instead of learning…in a textbook, we head to the field and find them. We build our class schedule around the tide table. During our bi-monthly low tide cycle, I meet students in the tide pools depending on their after-school schedule…to examine what is living there. We use an app created by the California Academy of Sciences (iNaturalist.org) to catalog our discoveries. Each student is required to find 20 species across several biological groups and photograph them, understand their biology, and share their observations with scientists that use this database to keep track of trends. Over the past four years, students in the class have found, identified, and photographed 200 different species and made over 2000 unique observations! And all of this has been done at one field site about an acre in size.”
Upper division science teachers Andrew Czerny and Kevin D’Angelo utilize an innovative, hands-on approach to teach Science 2 students about both Earth science and physics. Their picture post monitoring project, set up at Spanish Bay and Asilomar, is designed to help students learn about year-round coastal changes, as well as the greater effects of climate change and La Niña and El Niño on local beaches.
Along Spanish Bay and Asilomar, Mr. Czerny and Mr. D’Angelo built several picture posts—fixed points from which volunteers can photograph specific views of the beach, then upload those photos to a central database. Once uploaded, students can analyze and compare the images, allowing them to better understand how beach profiles have changed over time.
While the project is currently on hold while students are remote, Mr. Czerny plans to resume once everyone is back on-campus. He explains, “Ultimately, the picture posts will allow students to look at the profile of the beach over the course of a year, estimate the movement of sand, then correlate that with the amount of wave energy from storms.” He also explains, “As the frequency and intensity of Pacific storms change as a result of climate change, hopefully, we will be able to keep track of the amount of sand that moves on and off our beaches and relate it to those big changes.”
The lower and middle divisions take a similarly hands-on approach to science education. For example, J.R. Sosky, After School Program Director and middle division STEM instructor, teaches students about marine life—and also underwater photography, one of his passions—by taking students on a snorkeling field trip to Breakwater Cove at San Carlos Beach. With rented gear, including several compact amphibious cameras, and accompanied by local snorkeling guides, students photograph a few of the distinct local nearshore marine habitats—rocky intertidal, sandy seabeds, and kelp forests. In teams, students snorkel around Breakwater Cove, with guides helping to highlight what they see. After the field trip is over, the kids clean their gear and then process and edit their photos. In the end, Stevenson faculty serve as judges for a mini underwater photo contest. Participating students earn a deeper knowledge of local marine life, get a taste of underwater photography, and make a slew of lasting memories.
Of course, like any evolution, the School’s progress will continue to unfold and intensify over time. However, what’s exciting to see is that the School’s science teachers have swiftly embraced and incorporated new, hands-on, immersive teaching methods into their lesson plans, and further—that this new approach is paying off for students eager for meaningful challenges.
While such place-based, interdisciplinary science classes may seem non-traditional on their surface, they have in fact inspired more Stevenson students than ever to tackle higher-level science learning when given the opportunity. In fact, in 2020, 63 students in Grade 11 signed up for AP science classes—which represents more than a 30% increase in enrollment over that of the previous academic year.
Dr. Dan Griffiths, head of the upper division, explains, “Enrollment of juniors in AP classes increased by approximately 20% compared to the past 4 years, and the students taking AP classes this fall achieved fall midterm grades in line with their performance in previous science classes. This tells us that we are making high-level science classes available to our most ambitious science students more easily than before, and we are not over-accelerating students who are unprepared for AP classes. Additionally, the percentage of seniors taking science has jumped to 92%, up from an average of 75% over the previous three years, suggesting that we have made it more appealing to take science for all four years at Stevenson.”
Ultimately, there is no question that Stevenson has an unfair advantage when it comes to its location and the access it affords to the natural world. The School’s ultimate goal is to build one of the nation’s strongest possible (and most innovative) PK-12 science programs, confident that doing so will instill in students an understanding of critical, core concepts that will serve them well as scholars and citizens.