Science

During your time at Commonwealth, you’ll study biology, chemistry, and physics, all of which are graduation requirements. But the level to which you pursue these disciplines is a choice you make with your teachers and advisor. You’ll find that the sequencing of your science courses dovetails with your math courses—as you hone your algebra skills, you’ll be using them in chemistry; in physics, you’ll apply the calculus you’re learning to physical problems.

In all classes, you’ll find that the approach to the work is “minds on” and “hands on”: we train you to think like research scientists.

You will gain both a solid conceptual understanding of the workings of the physical world and a repertory of laboratory skills that will inspire you to ask important questions, conceive new ones, and address (and solve) unfamiliar problems.

"Analytical thinking is the name of the game.”

Do you have lofty scientific ambitions? You’ll find tough, college-level courses to attract you. Is your math training a bit weak? You will likely start out in a science section that helps fill in any gaps. Are you and a few friends passionate about a particular subject? Lobby your teacher, work together, and there’s a good chance you’ll be enrolled in a challenging new seminar the following fall.

"We learn to look at the patterns, the 'why.' Maybe we’ll forget everything we learned in class—all the facts, all the formulas, all the little details—but we’ll always have that spirit of inquiry.”

For any science we teach at Commonwealth, and in any field that interests you, opportunities to pursue your curiosity abound in Boston. Our own science team enters competitions; you can easily attend lectures and workshops (sometimes with your whole class) at surrounding universities. We help you find internships at university or industry labs or the Museum of Science during project week or the summer break. For a couple of students each year, these science experiences develop into longer, more intense, multi-summer internships. Or your project may turn into a submission to the Siemens Competition or the Intel Science Talent Search. (In the past few years, Intel has named three Commonwealth students semi-finalists.) And for those of you who like working with younger children, teaching interns and volunteer tutors are always needed in local grade and high schools.

Laboratory Exercises

These form an integral part of our science courses. As researchers in training, you begin with a question. With a lab partner or as a group, you usually design and execute your own experiments to probe and (we hope) answer the question posed. You learn to think, analyze, read, and write like scientists: you peruse scientific papers and reviews and learn to communicate your own findings persuasively both orally in and writing.

"In the lab, I learned that sometimes figuring out why an experiment failed and designing a better method is the most interesting part of research.”

Biology 1

Humans are organisms. We interact with other organisms constantly in ways that may not be obvious at first: brushing our teeth, selecting our food, deciding where and how we choose to live. When we begin to examine our environments closely, we become aware of the diversity in form and function of organisms that populate the natural world. We come to appreciate as well that many of these organisms raise biological questions about ourselves and the ways in which we are remarkably similar to, yet decidedly different from, many other forms of life.

Our course materials incorporate a textbook, online reading, animations, and research using both primary scientific literature and summaries of research reports. In addition, weekly laboratory sessions allow us to run experiments and look closely at material we have been discussing. For example, when we examine the properties of stem cells and regeneration, we test the regenerative properties of Planaria through experimentation and observation.

Because we are engaging in such a broad discipline, in-class discussions can range from the evolution of cells to the importance of the bacteria living symbiotically in the human gut, to the various positions people take on the use and release of genetically modified organisms. And at some point during the year, every breaking story in the biological world becomes part of our conversation.

Students say..."I found that virtually every single detail I had learned in Biology 1 was relevant to the work I did during my project at the Whitehead Institute.”

Chemistry 1 and Chemistry 1 Advanced

Taking an atoms-first approach, we begin by analyzing the periodic table of the elements. We move from the early concept of atoms as indivisible particles to today’s quantum mechanical view. Then, equipped with knowledge about the electronic structure of atoms, we can study the ways in which they bond to form different types of compounds.

As we investigate chemical reactions and explore concepts of solubility, acid-base chemistry, and reduction-oxidation reactions, we also develop a quantitative understanding of chemical reactions. If, for example, I burn a hydrocarbon compound in air, how many grams of carbon dioxide and water can I expect to produce? How much heat? What volume will the carbon dioxide occupy? We also work to explain the physical properties of matter. Why is it, for example, that hydrocarbons are not miscible with water and that carbon dioxide is a gas at room temperature while water is a liquid? If you need more background in math you may opt to take Chemistry 1, which offers a similar curriculum to that of Chemistry 1 Advanced, but our pace is somewhat slower and we take more class time to work on solving problems.

Students say..."An element from one side of the periodic table—say sodium, a reactive metal—could combine with one from the other—say chlorine, a toxic gas—and voilà: salt! Everywhere I looked, chemistry told a hidden past, present, even a future, tying this tiny world to the one before my eyes.”

Physics 1

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians measured the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy? In your first days of class you will learn how they did it. From the outset, physics at Commonwealth addresses questions in an experimental setting, where you explore with hands-on demos and labs—we even use our 3D printer to create some of the equipment for our experiments. In this introductory course, we aim to teach both the classical mechanics and modern physics that will give you a launching pad for future physics study.

Students say..."My first year in class I was in awe of how physics could explain the things I saw every day. Throwing objects became lessons about projectile motion: bumping into a friend while skating, an elastic collision. The way the equations build up to a complex and realistic description of the world amazed me.”

Physics 1 Advanced

AP We will derive the laws of physics just as Newton did about three hundred years ago— constructing the classical theory of mechanics starting with nothing more than Newton’s three laws of motion—and we will do so using the calculus that Newton and Leibniz invented for that purpose. After we convince ourselves (through simple demos) that Newton’s laws are true, we launch into the classic tangent-line problem to discuss instantaneous velocity as a derivative. We go on to extend our translational results to rotational dynamics, energy, and momentum. By the spring, you are well prepared for the AP Physics C Mechanics exam.

Students say..."Physics at Commonwealth is taught with the goal that as students, we figure out some answers on our own. Teachers give you the concepts and have you make connections. I think that’s the reason we come to care so much about the why and the how of the material.”

Electives

Biology 2 Advanced

Did you know that you can map the genes in mold spores? That you can make bacteria glow green? Or that our ear bones were jaw bones in our ancestors? If you like to observe and think about the world around you, you’ll love Biology 2, where we apply in-depth knowledge of underlying biological processes and enjoy the hands-on approach of lab exercises to learn how to think scientifically and to appreciate that our work as scientists lies beyond just memorizing facts and listing vocabulary (although it’s true that you will learn many facts and a lot of vocabulary!).

Students say..."Now that I’ve taken Bio 2, I will always ask ‘Why?’ For example, why is the fruit fly attracted to the fermenting yeast and not to the fruit itself? My growing knowledge of biology helps me to understand the world better.”

Chemistry 2 Advanced

AP Now we develop a more nuanced and detailed picture of the chemical world around us. Our study of kinetics allows us to connect our macroscopic observations about the rates of reactions to the underlying chemical mechanisms for the reactions. We begin to see both quantitatively and qualitatively the dynamic chemical equilibria at play in all biological and chemical systems (particularly acid-base and solubility equilibria), how they can be shifted, and how this balance connects to the fundamental thermodynamic relationships between reactants and products. We study how the enthalpic and entropic components of a reaction determine the spontaneity of a reaction. As we explore these fundamental concepts, we simultaneously develop our knowledge of electrochemical reactions, the chemistry of the main-group elements, transition-metal chemistry, and organic chemistry.

Note: Chemistry 1 and 2 Advanced together constitute a first-year college course in general chemistry for science majors. Almost all students take the Chemistry AP exam at the end of the year.

Students say..."As I learned the science, I began to see what chemistry really meant. The periodic table was a key, a guide to that world—and chemistry brought it to life. The food on my plate, the placemat itself, indeed the air and everything around me were made of these molecules—and chemistry explained them.”

Physics 2 Advanced

AP We pick up with electromagnetic theory and—to do it full justice—rigorously explore electricity and magnetism using multivariable calculus. But we don’t just work with highflying math; we undertake simple hands-on projects to reinforce concepts and demonstrate principles. For example, we might make a speaker out of nothing more than a wire, a magnet, and a piece of packing tape. Listening to it clearly play music from a phone gives us a demonstration of the force a current-carrying wire experiences in a magnetic field. Or we might create a mini-motor from a screw, a magnet, and a small battery. As a text, we use University Physics by Young and Freedman, the gold standard for college physics courses.

Students say..."The measured and analytical approach appeals to me. Given four formulas in physics (my current science and hence my current favorite) and a creative bent, one can derive tens more and solve many types of problems. Facing a problem for which, through experimentation and creative implementations of formulas I’ve derived, an answer can be reached—no matter the difficulty—excites me.”

Introduction to Wave Physics

Classically, physics studies the motion and dynamics of particles, of tangible objects. Nevertheless, wave phenomena are universal and govern behavior in fluids, optics, quantum physics, and biological systems. This course serves as an introduction to wave physics, with emphasis on optical and quantum systems.

We will begin by investigating fundamental wave phenomena: superposition, interference and diffraction, energy transport, and material response. Then, we will explore more advanced topics, such as pattern formation, instabilities, and turbulence. With this background, we can address open research questions and study recent engineering innovations.

Organic Chemistry

Historically used to describe the chemistry of living things, the term organic chemistry now refers more generally to the chemistry of carbon. Carbon forms an impressively varied set of compounds with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen (and others). These molecules and the reactions they undergo affect our world in so many ways, from the biochemistry that occurs in our own bodies, to the therapeutic drugs developed by the pharmaceutical industry (often inspired by natural products of plants), to the fuels that run our cars.

We will learn about the basic classes of organic reactions. Our focus will be on understanding and predicting the movements of electrons: i.e., the mechanisms that underlie reactions. Once we have developed a toolbox of reactions, we will learn how these can be carried out sequentially to synthesize more complex organic molecules.

During labs, we will learn about techniques used for performing organic reactions; for isolating, purifying, and characterizing products of these reactions; and for isolating important natural products. Chemical analysis is a critical part of the process—how do we know that we have made what we think we’ve made? As all chemists do, we face the challenge of establishing a connection between the macroscopic and molecular worlds. The tools scientists have developed (infra-red spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectrometry) allow us to “see” different parts of chemical structures and, with careful analysis, to uncover the structure of a molecule.

Students say..."The way we approach things in science here, but in fact in everything else as well: there’s guidance when you need it and freedom when you don’t, and when all you need is a push in the right direction, there’s someone there to help you along.”

Advanced Topics in Anatomy and Physiology

Wiggle your finger. Now take a moment to think about all the steps and all the components involved in even something that simple: the command in your brain (or the reflex that bypasses it!); the nerve cells that carry and relay signals down your arm; the cells that insulate those nerves so the signal moves faster; the chemical spark from nerve to muscle; the molecular ratcheting that makes muscles contract and release. Each part is built for its job, shaped and structured in order to serve its purpose.

Our whole body is built of these sorts of remarkable assemblies of cells, with structure rigorously tied to function. How do the forms of biological structures lead to their functions— and vice versa? These are the kinds of relationships we explore in cells, tissues, organs, and systems.

Although we mostly consider human anatomy and physiology, there are times when other animals provide interesting examples, and so we digress once in a while. Along the way, you will see how these systems allow animals to carry out an impressive assortment of actions— from climbing stairs, to digesting a meal, to contemplating calculus.

Students say..."Biology is really a very humbling science. Never again will I be able to see a living thing without thinking about its inner workings.”

Advanced Physics Seminar

Do you and some of your classmates feel the need to deepen your knowledge of topics covered in the Physics 1-2 curriculum? Or to explore realms of physics that lie beyond it? You are invited to get together with your instructor to discuss the syllabus for an advanced seminar. With enough interest and commitment on your part, the course will most likely come into existence.

Note: This course is limited to students who have demonstrated particularly strong skills in Physics 1 Advanced or who are enrolled at the same time in Physics 2.

Environmental Studies: Problems and Solutions

Food production. Energy use. Biodiversity. The production, use, and disposal of plastic. Climate change. Our society will be able to resolve these broad, pressing problems only if we can gain an objective understanding of human impacts on the environment. To this end, we adopt a scientific approach, using the tools of environmental analysis to consider timely, often controversial questions: How accurately can researchers predict the impact of introducing a new species into an ecosystem? What are the potential consequences of the spread of pesticide resistance genes beyond agricultural systems? To what extent can human communities prepare for global climate change, and what may be the effect of the consequences we cannot prepare for?

Through readings, discussions in class, and independent projects, we look at the effects of human interactions on our physical surroundings and investigate the underlying scientific and historical factors that contribute to today’s ongoing environmental crises. Then we study innovative and creative proposals aimed at addressing these critical issues. With our growing knowledge of environmental science, we evaluate the likely success of each plan of action.

Students say..."Garbage is just a resource in the wrong place."

Science Faculty

Christopher Barsi

Physics Teacher, Mathematics Teacher, Robotics Team Advisor, 11th Grade Projects Coordinator
B.S.
M.A.
Ph.D.
Faculty & Staff

Samantha Burke

Biology, Chemistry, and Mathematics Teacher, Science Team Advisor, 10th Grade Class Advisor
B.S.
Ph.D.
Faculty & Staff

Rebecca Jackman

Assistant Head of School, Director of Studies, Chemistry Teacher, 10th Grade Class Advisor
B.Sc.
M.A.
Ph.D.
Faculty & Staff

Anna Moss

Mathematics, Physics, and City of Boston Teacher, Projects Coordinator, Summer Planning Coordinator
B.A.
Faculty & Staff
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