The Art of Biology: Modeling, Designing, and Storytelling in Ellis’ Science Curriculum

Modeling, designing, storytelling—these are terms one might expect to hear in an art or English classroom. But at Ellis, used to compliment rigorous experimentation, data collection, and analysis, they perfectly illustrate the science curriculum. In general, Ellis’ Upper School curriculum encourages hands-on, active learning experiences, but Ellis science teachers take this to another level.
“There’s an art to the way that we teach this here,” says Upper School Biology Teacher Kassandra Wadsworth. She notes that everything from the layout of the classrooms to the progression of the science curriculum and the lessons studied are carefully designed to help students learn from doing science and engaging in inquiry, drawing their own conclusions about what stories certain data tells.

“The progression is very meaningful, and our goal is to create young women who are scientifically literate, who can evaluate data and draw meaningful conclusions. It’s a life skill that everyone needs,” she says.

While many schools teach biology in ninth grade, followed by chemistry and then physics, Ellis reverses this model by teaching a physics-first curriculum. Ellis faculty teach in order of scientific progression rather than math progression; this means that by the time junior students reach Ms. Wadsworth’s class, she is able to talk about more complex topics in biology because students have a strong understanding of the topics biology builds on.

“Here at Ellis, physics covers topics like electricity, for example. In chemistry, students can build upon that idea and talk about polarity inside a molecule. Then biology can pick up and talk about the structure of a cell membrane. You have to have an understanding of each topic before you move on to the next, because of the way they build on each other. The way we teach is so helpful for our students’ understanding.”

This continuation of teaching allows Ellis science faculty to talk about more complex topics and guide students through more complex labs. Particularly unique to Ellis is Ms. Wadsworth’s Tiny Earth project, something that’s only done in a handful of high school biology classrooms throughout the United States. The class completes an authentic student-driven research project to isolate antibiotic-producing bacteria from the soil using techniques such as serial plating, streaking, gram staining, electrophoresis, PCR, and BLAST analysis of DNA sequencing results. Students collaboratively develop their skills in experimental design and creation of data representations and argumentation, design a scientific poster, and communicate their results to the Ellis community.

Ms. Wadsworth’s classes have also explored the structure of viruses and how they affect cells. In a recent lab, her students modeled the cell cycle and later made stop-motion videos to illustrate how cells work. In AP classes, students design and run their own experiments studying enzymes, during which they have to alter a variable and examine the effect that variable had on an enzymatic reaction.

Through these projects and others, students learn that data tells a story about how things work, and that the way scientists use that data can also tell a story. Ms. Wadsworth works discussions of bioethics into her lessons, noting the importance of ingraining ethical practices into scientific work.

"These are advanced concepts and experiences," she explains, "and something students don’t typically encounter until they enter college."

And Ellis students stick with it. Students aren’t required to take a science course after their junior year, but typically about 80% of them choose to take a science course beyond their core requirements, setting them up especially well for success in their college classes. About half of each graduating class opts to take at least two science electives, which include AP Physics, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Environmental Science.

"As seniors, they have a lot of options for electives so they can specialize. A lot of the time, they’re choosing to explore science further,” Ms. Wadsworth says. "One of the things we try to achieve here is an authentic experience. I want the students to do science and not just carry out the experiment. The experience is really meaningful to them because they’re doing what a scientist would actually do.”
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