The Phenomena of the Natural World

In a typical high school science class, the teacher begins by introducing students to a theory and formula. Students proceed with experiments that demonstrate the theory and work out results using the presented formulas. At San Francisco Waldorf High School, students explore science like scientists. They closely observe the phenomenon and, with guidance from the teacher, derive concepts, formulas, and scientific laws from their first-hand explorations. The scientific methodology trains students to observe carefully and question critically.

The science program is unique in another fundamental way: students have concentrated blocks of each scientific discipline each year, building a foundation of understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. The material engages students as they grow: tenth graders, for example, explore process, growth, and transformation throughout the curriculum; their biology class is embryology and heredity. Biological sciences continue with eleventh grade Botany and Cell Biology, then twelfth grade Zoology and Evolution. Seniors may elect to take an year-long honor course in biology.


Organic Chemistry: 9th Grade

Students become familiar with the various chemical substances by relating chemistry to what actually takes place inside their body. Investigate three food groups (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and how the body processes them through digestion. Discover how the human being, the animals, and the plants are all parts of the cycle of photosynthesis and respiration. Study the process of fermentation by brewing beer.

Inorganic Chemistry: 10th Grade

Investigation of the transformations of copper between metal, salt or oxide. Students devise their own analytical process to identify some metallic ions in an unknown solution. Difference between a metal and its metallic ion is strongly emphasized. Students observe reactions between metals and different ions, make a hypothesis, and asked to devise and perform experiments that will allow them to check the validity of the hypothesis. From this they arrange metals in a reactivity list. Hydrogen then is added on the reactivity list. Students create a zinc etching and make a print, and create their own pigments for use as tempera paint, and study alternative photographic processes.

Periodic Table: 11th Grade

Students gain familiarity of the most common elements and create their own periodic table, using cards, the way Mendeleev did. Students experiment with one element and create a web-page showing its “personality.” Students asked: how do we know that atoms exist, and how do we know that the formula for water is H2O? Student exposed to the struggle of early chemists, from Alchemists to Proust, Dalton, Gay Lussac and Mendeleev, to name a few. Explore the atomic number, moles, and amounts of substance, and chemical formulae. Introduced to the modern atomic model, recognize the power of Mendeleev's periodic table, and how well the atomic model and the table fit together. Explore logic behind the formation of simple ions and molecules (ionic, simple, double and triple covalent bond).

Practical Chemistry: 11th Grade

Conceptual course gives students familiarity, through experiments, of the most common elements, enabling them to create their own periodic table, using cards, the way Mendeleev did. Students experiment with an element and create a web-page showing its “personality.” Students read original papers leading to the atomic theory and create a time line of the major discoveries. Strong emphasis on noticing that all these discoveries were based on accurate observations of the phenomena and as new observations are made, some theories need to be modified.

Inorganic Chemistry: 12th Grade

Study prepares students for independent project during which they will perform the extraction of the essential oil of their choice, the synthesis of one of its components (preferably an ester), and the comparison of the oil and their synthetic ester by thin layer chromatography. Students document project on a web-page, and perform the following labs: esterification of linalool and acetic acid to prepare linalyl acetate; extraction and purification of the ester and calculation of the yield; discovery of the two stereo isomers of limonene and of the asymmetric carbon; synthesis of aspirin from salicylic acid and acetic anhydride; thin layer chromatography of store-bought aspirin, lab-made aspirin and salicylic acid. Polymers are introduced through the synthesis of nylon.


Thermodynamics: 9th Grade

Begins with exploration of how a toaster works. Further studies of the effects of heating and cooling on solids, liquids, and gases, and on the working of various kinds of thermostats and thermometers. Macroscopic meaning of temperature is investigated and related to the sensations of warmth and cold. Concept of absolute temperature is introduced and the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales are related to each other and to the Kelvin scale. Concept of specific heat is derived from experimentation and used to compare and contrast the ideas of heat and temperature. Demonstrations help to differentiate the processes of heating and cooling from the concept of temperature, and open the door for future investigations on the nature of heat.

Mechanics: 10th Grade

Introduction to kinematics. Properties of the pendulum are explored to introduce process of scientific investigation, including collection and analysis of data. It follows a study of uniform rectilinear motion, leading to the concepts of speed and trajectory. Free fall becomes then the focal point of our research, and Galileo Galilei the leading figure of the block. Students perform the inclined plane experiment, and with the help of further demonstrations, are guided to the concept of acceleration and the discovery of the geometrical nature of projectile motion. Lab reports and hands-on projects.

Electricity & Magnetism: 11th Grade

Begins with study of electrostatic phenomena and magnetic phenomena. Two-charge model introduced to provide an explanation for the phenomena observed, and it is later contrasted with an approach based only on the concepts of electric and magnetic fields. The electroscope, the Van de Graaff, the Wimshurst machine, and the Leyden jar, are explore. Transition to electromagnetism follows historical development, from the invention of the battery by Volta to the discoveries of Oersted, Faraday, and Ampere. Creation of magnetic fields by an electric current, the force between electric currents, the production of electric current by changing magnetic fields, and other related phenomena are observed first and later discussed in detail. Student build AC generator and electric motor or pursue independent project approved by the teacher.

Practical Physics: 11th Grade

Offered as an alternative to Electricity and Magnetism; investigation of practical applications. Explore electric and magnetic phenomena. Topics include the Van de Graaff generator, the Wimshurst machine, the capacitor, the battery, the electromagnet, the electric motor, and the AC generator. Students build all the projects mentioned above except for the Van de Graaff generator. Students presents orally the physics behind each project.

Optics: 12th Grade

Approached as the science of the visual world. Light cannot be seen directly, it is only through the interaction with matter that we perceive its existence. Students explore phenomena of reflection, refraction, and colors. Study of the images generated by mirrors (flat, convex and concave) and lenses (biconcave and biconvex) is done first only through observable quantities (parallax and perspective), and later through the ray-tracing model. Appearance of colors when looking at the world through a prism is observed and discussed.

Honors Modern Physics: 12th Grade

12th Grade year-long elective. Provides solid conceptual introduction to the physics of the 20th century. Replacement of the Newtonian mechanical view of the universe with the relativistic, quantum mechanical new physics is explored with particular emphasis on the conceptual and historical development of the new ideas. Emphasis on understanding of physics as a human endeavor, nature of the scientific process, and historical development of physics ideas. Hands on investigations, experiments, and demonstrations play a central role, along with algebra-based quantitative problem solving. Some areas of Newtonian dynamics are reviewed in greater details in order to prepare a stronger foundation for the understanding of modern physics. Course adopts the textbook “Understanding physics” by David Cassidy, Gerald Holton, James Rutherford (2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.) written for undergraduate non-science majors or AP high school students.


Anatomy & Physiology: 9th Grade

Study of skeletal, circulatory, nervous, and sensory systems. Contrasts and comparisons between systems in humans and those of other organisms. Emphasis on building student skills of: 1) observation, 2) verbal, written, and pictorial description, and 3) the correct use of scientific terminology in class discussions and written work. Lab experiments geared toward the observation, description, measurement, recording, and interpretation of various physiological responses under different conditions. Lab reports contain statistics and interpret data. Sources of error in experiments and experimental design discussed and are required components of the lab reports.

Embryology & Heredity: 10th Grade

Exploration of physiology and development of a human being from the production cycles of egg and sperm cells through birth. Comparisons with embryonic development of other organisms. Students observe development of fish eggs. Expectant mother and midwife visit to share experiences in the processes of pregnancy and birth. Overview of history of genetics and laws of mitosis, meiosis, and heredity are studied. Discussion of current issues in biology today, such as stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering.

Botany & Cell Biology: 11th Grade

Study of cells and single-celled organisms. Students learn functions of the major cellular organelles and processes of protein synthesis within the cell. Differences between plant and animal cells are emphasized. Plants studied in the context of the five Kingdoms of life, and basic taxonomic rules and nomenclature are introduced. Emphasis on anatomy and physiology of flowering plants and several important Families. Observation of growing plants and plant structures in their natural habitat, as specimens in the lab, and under the microscope. Skills of analytical observation, precise description of plant life processes, and the correct use of terminology developed.

Zoology & Evolution: 12th Grade

Exploration of animals within the context of five Kingdoms of life. Exploration of three-Domain system of classifying organisms and the molecular evidence used to support this taxonomy. Major Phyla of animals studied with special attention paid to modes of reproduction, life cycles, and the characteristics of the nervous and circulatory systems in each group. Life and thought of Darwin and development of theories such as Neo-Darwinism, endosymbiosis, complexity theory, wholism, and ideas that incorporate the spiritual dimension.

Honors Biology: 12th Grade

12th Grade Year-long Elective. Open to seniors who have successfully completed Algebra 2 and who have earned a B grade or better in the biology blocks. Topics range from molecules of life to the functioning of ecosystems. Labs from AP curriculum, and include work such as the quantitative analysis of enzyme activity, osmotic water potential of cells, and measurements of cellular respiration under different conditions. Study of functioning of DNA as well as bacteriology, immunity, nutrition science, and ecosystem dynamics. Students present results of experiments, read professional scientific papers for discussion, and write detailed lab reports.

Earth Sciences and Astronomy

Geology: 9th Grade

Introduces motions, cycles, and processes of the solid earth. Students observe and describe characteristics of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks and study how the traits of each rock tell the story of its origin. Study of regional geological phenomena to understand sedimentary processes and local manifestations of plate tectonics, and how the dynamics of the earth generate different landforms and rock cycles. Exploration of transition of thought from catastrophism to uniformitarianism and the evolution of our modern scientific understanding of geology. Early scientific theories as developed by Steno, Hutton, Lyell, and Whewell. Historical evidence that led to the theory of continental drift, as first proposed by Alfred Wegener to modern theory of plate tectonics.

Meteorology: 10th Grade

Exploration of how the energy of the sun and the rotation of the earth act upon the fluids of the earth - the air and waters - to produce weather and climate. Through direct field observation, lab exercises, and demonstrations, students explore how energy radiated from the sun acts upon the land and water of the earth to cause the redistribution of energy into and throughout our atmosphere by radiation, convection, and conduction. Driving forces of climate and weather studied on local, regional, and global scales, with special attention to the development of high and low pressure systems, Hadley cell circulation, the Coriolis effect, and the jet stream. Effects of human activity on global climate change are explored.

Astronomy: 11th Grade

Study of celestial phenomena as observed from the Earth. Students familiarize themselves with the night sky, the constellations, and their motion. In-depth study of the rhythms of the sun, moon and close relations. Different kinds of times discussed and related to the ordinary Standard Time. Motion of the planets through the sky explored, creating base to understand real value of the Copernican revolution. Kepler’s description of the planetary motion is discussed whenever an Earth-based phenomena points to it. Students learn how to shift continuously from a geocentric observation to its heliocentric explanation and vice versa.

Environmental Science: 12th Grade

Exploration of environmental issues that will confront students through their lives. Develop working knowledge of ecology, ecosystems, and population dynamics, including the concept of limiting factors that impact both the natural world and human environments. Use of current events to explore environmental conditions and challenges; probe of philosophical beliefs that drive environmental concerns. Ecosystem studies include biogeochemical cycles, energy flow through food webs, and anthropogenic disruption of natural systems. Historical accounts of environmental problems are used to place current problems in context.

A Physicist's Path to the High School

Herbst Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence, 2012.

Dr. Carini received his BA in physics at the University of Rome in 1988. He moved to the United States to continue his research in theoretical physics at Stanford University, where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Carini taught at Amherst College and completed his Waldorf Teacher Training in the San Francisco Teacher Training Program.

"I was attracted to Waldorf education when I discovered that the process of teaching science in Waldorf schools was much closer to the process of doing research than to the way science had been taught to me in high school. When one faces new territory in science it is important to keep an open mind to what nature is trying to tell you. New concepts are created out of a process of observation of phenomena in order to discover and formulate the so-called physical laws."

Field Studies

The investigative approach to science continues with work in the field: on overnight trips students explore principles in geology, meteorology, environmental science, botany, and astronomy. Ninth and tenth graders have blocks in Habitat Restoration and Gardening, courses that provide students with first-hand understanding of soil science, cultivation, native plants, ecology, and the natural systems of the area.