Even before Blaine Hall's foundations were laid, Lab students were already immersed in scientific experiments. In the Hyde Park houses where John Dewey's early students gathered for classes, kitchens served double duty as laboratories where students learned about such basic concepts as acidity through experimentation with common food products like tomato juice.
Formal science labs played a major role in the early Laboratory Schools, as students conducted experiments and learned to appreciate zoological diversity by working with displays of stuffed animals. Much of the Schools' early collection of such specimens is housed today in Gerold Hanck's Lower School science classroom, which often resembles a taxidermist's crowded studio as much as it does a laboratory.
The early love for science instilled at Lab eventually become a career for many alumni, such as Ruth Crist Dyer, '35, who became a research chemist with Sherwin Williams. "We would take trips to the Wooded Isle in Jackson Park and bring back leaves. We would look at the trees during different seasons and see how they had changed," she recalled.
Teachers create new curriculum
Lab Schools science teachers created new programs for their students that were adopted for use throughout the country.
Wilbur Jackman, for instance, is known as the father of elementary science teaching. His 1891 book, Nature Study for the Common Schools, launched the nature study movement that came to define an entire generation of science teaching. Jackman's approach took students outdoors to explore an indivisible environment with an integrated academic approach. Observations, drawings, and descriptions correlated students' work in science with their studies in languages and art.
Rather than view biological concepts in isolation in the classroom, students were able to appreciate the multiplicity of factors at play in the real scientific world. Jackman Field is named in memory of this notable American educator and Lab Schools faculty member.
Another nationally known science teacher, Bertha Parker, came to the Lab Schools in 1916 to teach in the Elementary School and pursue an advanced degree at the University. She inherited Jackman's tradition of nature study, spoke at gatherings of educators, and published extensively on science instruction. She is best remembered for the many science-related books she wrote for children, some of which still spark bidding wars among nostalgia buffs on e-bay and other online auction houses. Parker retired in 1955 after teaching both pre-freshmen and high school students.
"Bertha Parker was unexcelled," said Lynn Alexander Margulis, '54, a Distinguished University Professor in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the author of several science books, and an accomplished biologist. "She inspired us with a plethora of hands-on activities."
Parker invited another outstanding teacher, Bryan Swan, to join the science department in 1944. He came to Lab and revolutionized the teaching of physics, not only within U-High walls, but also nationwide, by developing the Physical Science Study Committee's (PSSC) curriculum in physics in the late 1950s. The program, the first national curriculum in physics, was an outgrowth of Cold War-era concerns about the apparent inadequacy of American science education.
The program was tested at Lab, and Swan held weekend workshops for area teachers who were using the new approach, said retired science teacher Jan Housinger, who was recruited to Lab by Swan.
"The program really made a difference in the way physics is taught. Before PSSC, physics was largely taught from a textbook. The new program provided for experiments, which made the subject more interesting," Housinger explained.
Swan also served as a role model for teachers by displaying an especially caring attitude toward his students. "He used to spend hours with students who needed extra help and came in to spend whole weekends drawing diagrams on the board to illustrate the points he wanted to make," said Barbara Wehr, a retired science teacher.
Housinger, as well as other teachers, are remembered by alumni for the extra attention they gave to students and their ability to explain science and excite students about the joy of discovery.
Carrying on a spirit of innovation
The science department continued its interest in new approaches and curriculum development in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of the Natural Sciences program. Students worked from mimeographed syllabi that provided them with readings and experiments designed to boost their abilities to think scientifically and develop their skills.
"Since one of the best ways to learn science and about science is through taking part in the kinds of activities scientists carry on, we shall be making a few investigations in this course," the introduction reads. Students and teachers traveled to the Indiana dunes to learn from the landscape. Teachers also traveled by themselves to the dunes and brought back material for students to examine. In one of the investigations, the students measured grains of sand to see how its composition differed from samples collected close to shore and further inland.
The course was intended to provide more rigor in science instruction and deepen students' understanding of major scientific principles. The interactions between living and non-living things and their environment, the idea of fundamental particles, the principle of complementarity of structures and functions were all central to the curriculum. Students also gained exposure to the intricacies of the atomic theory, the kinetic-molecular theory, and the theory of evolution.
The curriculum was used into the early 1980s, but the science department gradually began to emphasize rigorous student work over educational experimentation. Dan West, current science department chair, said teachers launched a new course in physics in the early 1980s that taught in the subject through an understanding of astronomy.
"We had that course for six years or so, and some other schools adopted it, but that was pretty much the end of curriculum development for us. We began to put more emphasis on Advanced Placement courses," he said.
The Advanced Placement courses, which today are offered in biology, physics, and chemistry, provide extra preparation for students going to college. A high score on an AP test may waive college course requirements.
"Students like the program because it can mean a reduction in the amount of time they have to spend taking the work in college," West said. The AP program is limiting, however, because U-High starts the school year later than most other high schools and students must work faster to master the material that will be covered on AP exams. The program is also not very flexible because it emphasizes only the material covered in examinations, West added.
Another tradition at Lab, working with University scientists, continues. These joint efforts have launched careers in science and provided experiences that led to national recognition, such as the Westinghouse Science Award, a competition in which many Lab students have been finalists.
"We are happy that we have students who can work with professors across campus, doing real research in the laboratories and absorbing the most up-to-date information and approaches in their various fields," West said.
Whether students are learning within U-High walls or in advanced University labs, today's science department follows a philosophy that respects practical experience and prepares students to apply and use this knowledge in their adult careers.
"We believe that our students should grasp enough of each field of study so they can read articles as adults in Scientific American, for instance, and understand them. They should also have enough knowledge of the scientific method to be able to critique what they've heard about a scientific issue--to know, for example, if an experiment was conducted correctly and if there was enough evidence to support the conclusion."
Today, the science department offers a full array of courses in laboratories that are being totally refurbished during the two summers. Although two years of science are currently required for graduation, most students take much more. In addition to biology, physics, and chemistry, the school also offers quarter-long courses that tap into individual interests, such as an introductory course in electronics, one in cosmology, and courses in relativity, environmental science, human behavior, biomedical ethics, and current research.
Like the teachers before them, Lab's current science faculty use innovation as well as rigor in preparing a program that stimulates as it educates students, West said. One innovation currently underway is an integration of the science curriculum from third through twelfth grades. The project, in its second year, will set clear expectations of what students should learn at each grade level and in each course.
"We intend to determine what impact teaching a particular topic in one grade has several years later on student learning," said West. "This is something that isn't done in other schools and it will be another way we can make an innovative contribution to student learning and the field of science education."