Science Program Overview

Our Approach

Human beings have been struggling to understand the world around them since time immemorial. The discussion about time, space, matter, energy, and life has engulfed some of the greatest minds of human history, from Democritus to Stephen Hawking. We believe that an appreciation for science and the ability to engage in scientific practices improve our ability to live lives of meaning. The study of Astronomy, Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics will take you on an incredible journey.

See how science is relevant to her life and future

Within the first few hours of every course, or the first few minutes of each live class, every student will make conscious and subconscious decisions about the extent to which she should commit to the course, based on the amount of benefit she believes she will derive from the course or class session. Our goal is to design science courses and classes that speak right to students’ hearts and interests so they choose to commit 100% to learning science in our program.

Develop a big-picture understanding of the sciences

We want our students to develop an understanding of science that does not dissolve with time. Students may lose details about specific processes or scientific formulas with time, but a student’s big-picture understanding about the purpose, texture, and general workings of science will not fade with time if ingrained deeply enough. Our program is designed to help students weave specific vocabulary and concepts they learn each day into the broader scientific tapestry so they develop a clear big-picture understanding they can carry with them throughout their lives.

We accomplish this goal by continually emphasizing what we call “Big Picture Concepts.” Big Picture concepts are scientific concepts that apply across all domains of science. They are therefore a way of linking different scientific domains. By consistently connecting specific topics into Big Picture concepts, we help students develop and enhance their Big Picture scientific understanding.

Big Picture concepts are recurring themes in all Williamsburg science courses. Specifically, we introduce these seven Big Picture concepts to students, and connect the topics in each of our science courses back into one or more of them.

  • Patterns, similarity and diversity
  • Cause and effect
  • Scale, proportion and quantity
  • Systems and system models
  • Energy and matter
  • Structure and function
  • Stability and change

Big Picture concepts provide students with a simple mental framework into which they can categorize new knowledge. By repetition, and observing each concept from different angles, students develop their own Big Picture understanding that will stay with them long after their last Williamsburg final exam.

Our Big Picture Concepts were inspired by the Next Generation Science Standards.

Become competent in performing the practices of a scientist

In Williamsburg science courses, students engage in projects and assignments that require them to demonstrate competency in the same types of practices used by professional scientists and engineers. When students engage in these practices and assignments and actually perform scientific and engineering investigations, it can pique their curiosity, capture their interest, and motivate them to be lifelong learners. They see for themselves that science is creative, and they begin to see how science can solve societal problems. From a very broad perspective, our projects and assignments require students to engage in two types of practices:

  1. Scientific practices that involve the formulation of a question that can be and is answered through investigation
  2. Engineering practices that involve the formulation of a problem that can be solved through design. These practices help students see the relevance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the four STEM fields) to everyday life

More specifically, our projects and assignments revolve around eight types of practices that engage students in the same kinds of behaviors demonstrated by professional scientists and engineers. These are as follows:

  1. Questions: Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
  2. Models: Developing and using models
  3. Investigations: Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analysis: Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Computations: Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Explanations: Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
  7. Argument: Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Research & Communicate: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Our approach to scientific practices was informed by the Next Generation Science Standards.

Understand the most important scientific ideas in a given discipline

We appreciate the fact that we have a limited amount of time with each student in our science courses, so we must be strategic about which concepts we choose to cover. Our goal is to choose those concepts which are most “core” to the discipline in question, and to the sciences in general.

To qualify as “core” in a Williamsburg curriculum course, an idea should meet at least two of these four criteria:

  • Have a broad importance across multiple sciences or engineering disciplines or be a key organizing concept of a single discipline;
  • Provide a key tool for understanding or investigating more complex ideas and solving problems;
  • Relate to the interests and life experiences of students or be connected to societal or personal concerns that require scientific or technological knowledge; or
  • Be teachable or learnable over multiple grades at increasing levels of depth and sophistication
Courses Recommended Grade Credit Delivery Format Versions Prerequisites
Astronomy A 9th (Freshman), 10th (Sophomore), 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live None
Astronomy B 9th (Freshman), 10th (Sophomore), 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live Astronomy A
Biology A 10th (Sophomore) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic High School Math 1B , High School Math 1B - (recommended, not required)
Biology B 10th (Sophomore) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic Biology A
Chemistry A 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic High School Math 1A , High School Math 1B
Chemistry B 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic Chemistry A
Earth Science A 9th (Freshman) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic None
Earth Science B 9th (Freshman) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic Earth Science A
Physics A 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic High School Math 1A , High School Math 1B , High School Math 2A , High School Math 2B - We recommend Pre-Calculus A as a corequisite - that students take Pre-Calculus A at the same time as Physics A.
Physics B 11th (Junior), 12th (Senior) 0.5 Live / Self-paced Classic Physics A - We recommend Pre-Calculus B as a co-requisite - that students take Pre-Calculus B at the same time as Physics B.

How Our Science Courses Work

Our science courses employ several learning features designed to help students think and act like scientists:

Live science classes

Students attend live science classes twice weekly. In these class sessions, mentors teach students difficult science concepts and help them work challenging problems. In many live sessions, students and mentors engage in debates about controversial scientific topics, simulations, engaging colloquia based on classical science texts, group explorations, and high-energy presentations.

These live class sessions are designed to help students understand the how and why of scientific principles.

The WHY of Science The HOW of Science
Why has this theory survived so far? What steps do I follow to solve physical problems?
Who created this theory and why? How do I apply these steps to solve real problems in everyday life?

Live science labs and demonstrations: students practice hands-on scientific discovery alongside their peers and mentors

Science isn’t just something our students learn–it’s something we do! In science labs, mentors and students perform engaging experiments together. These experiments require students to form and test their own hypotheses, analyze their data, form conclusions, and report on their findings. In science demonstrations, mentors perform experiments for students, modeling the tools, materials, processes, and knowledge necessary to perform effective experiments. By modeling scientific practices for students in both labs and demonstrations, mentors help students understand how to use these same practices themselves when completing fun and challenging science projects and assignments.

Fun and challenging projects and assignments

Science courses that focus on knowledge alone give students an incorrect understanding of the role of scientific inquiry and may leave them feeling that science is a body of disconnected facts. A primary goal of Williamsburg’s science program is to help students think and act like scientists. What a student knows when she has completed courses in our science program is only part of our goal; a more important measure of our success is whether the student knows how to apply what she has learned to move forward into greater scientific understanding.

Students in each science discipline except astronomy complete a science project that spans the length of a semester for Earth Science and Biology and the entire school year for Chemistry and Physics. In live class science project checkpoints, mentors model for students how to form and test their hypotheses; gather, display, and analyze their data; form solid conclusions; and report on their findings. Students are then coached through the performance of these same practices as they complete each step in their personal science project. Each step of the science project is strategically aligned to specific checkpoints so that mentors model specific scientific practices before students are expected to demonstrate those practices themselves.

In addition to the science projects, students complete “Science Brain Activities” such as creating concept maps, making models, creating presentations, performing experiments, making observations, working out calculations, and writing mini-essays. Students also complete concept checks, quizzes, and participation evaluations. In addition to engaging in debates about controversial scientific topics, students participate in graded science colloquia in which they read an excerpt from a classical scientific tract or primary source and participate in a class discussion about the reading.

Engaging science lessons with readings, videos, games, and simulations

Students engage in online learning sessions in our Learning Management System, which include engaging text, videos, interactive online simulations and readings, mentor-created videos, and more.

Office Hours. Students can get live 1:1 help every school day

In a mentor’s office hours, students can get live 1:1 help. Mentors hold office hours at established times each week, and post these hours on each course homepage. Mentors don’t simply give students answers; instead, they ask questions that help students discover the answers on their own and become more independent science consumers.