Upper School Science

Alumna, Avantika Chitre, visits Anatomy class to meet with Menlo School students. Photo by Shanyne Olsen.

Real World Science.

The Science Department seeks to develop a community of inquisitive, creative, and reflective thinkers in our classrooms. Through the core sequence of physics, chemistry, and biology, our goal is to offer a program that builds basic skills and content knowledge upon which students can draw in future endeavors. To promote enthusiasm and engagement in scientific inquiry, the science faculty emphasizes laboratory experience, data collection and analysis, and application of core principles to everyday phenomena. The School offers a number of science-related elective opportunities both within and outside of the department. Within the department, we offer both AP Physics (1 & 2) and AP Physics C, AP Chemistry, Anatomy & Physiology, and Advanced Topics in Biology. Please refer to the Applied Science & Engineering Department course catalog for other science-related offerings.


View student testimonials for science courses.

  • Conceptual Physics

    This is a conceptual course designed to prepare students for chemistry, biology, and subsequent science courses. This class will focus on fundamental science study skills to give students the tools necessary to succeed in future science courses. The course develops students’ ability to understand concepts, observe phenomena, collect and interpret data, and present and write succinct and coherent lab reports. Problem-solving is introduced with careful attention paid to mathematical understanding. Students collect, graph, and interpret data regularly, often using digital probes interfaced with computers in the laboratory. The course teaches skills and content through a combination of lecture and hands-on experiments and demonstrations. Topics studied include waves, sound, light, mechanics, heat, and electricity & magnetism.

    Enrollment in Integrated Geometry and Algebra is required for Conceptual Physics.

  • Physics 1

    The freshman physics course is a conceptual course designed as a preparatory course for chemistry, biology, and subsequent science courses. While concepts are stressed, the course involves the use of algebraic equations at a basic level to develop problem solving skills. The course develops students’ ability to observe phenomena, collect and interpret data, and present and write succinct and coherent lab reports. Students collect, graph, and interpret data regularly, often using digital probes interfaced with computers in the laboratory. The course teaches skills and content through a combination of lecture and hands-on experiments and demonstrations. Topics studied include waves, sound, light, heat, mechanics, and electricity & magnetism.

  • Conceptual Chemistry

    This course provides a strong foundation in chemistry by favoring application of essential principles over broad coverage of topics. The goal of the course is to build critical skills and interest in the nature of materials through observation of familiar materials and their properties. We will conduct some more involved laboratory studies to link fundamental concepts with common applications of how things work. In addition, the course will focus on organic and biochemistry to prepare students for success in biology. This course is for students who learn best when given time to process and apply material, spending time discovering the significance of basic concepts rather than rapidly addressing new ideas.

    Prerequisites: Open to all sophomores.

  • Accelerated Chemistry (H)

    Accelerated Chemistry is a demanding introduction to the foundations of matter and its behavior. Topics include fundamentals as well as modern atomic theory, chemical equilibrium, electrochemistry, and thermodynamics, drawing upon skills and knowledge gained in physics. In order to cover a broad range of topics and include real-world applications, new topics are introduced quickly and mastery is built through problem-solving and laboratory investigation. Laboratory activities explore increasingly complex systems with numerical techniques where applicable. The course includes a detailed foundation in organic and biochemistry to prepare students for biology. This is a course for students with good analytical skills, curiosity about nature, and desire to apply knowledge in complex ways.

    Prerequisites: Earn an A- in freshman Physics or teacher approval.

  • Biology

    Biology uses chemistry as a launching point to start students on a journey from microscale to macroscale. Topics explored include biochemical molecules and digestion; cell and organelle structure and function; human physiology and reproduction; genetics and molecular biology; a biotechnology unit that utilizes modern laboratory techniques and explores bioethics; ecology; and evolution. The biology faculty works closely together to develop ways to encourage deeper thinking in our students. This work has resulted in an academically challenging and exciting course that is in a constant state of evolution as the team brings new ideas and approaches to the teaching of biology.

    Prerequisites: Completion of Chemistry.

  • Advanced Topics in Biology (H)

    Advanced Biology is designed to represent a year of college laboratory biology. The goal of the course is to provide students who enjoy biology an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the process and content of biology. Topics studied include cellular energetics, molecular genetics, plant science, developmental biology and physiology (with an emphasis on systems not studied in Biology, such as immunology, and neurobiology). Considerable emphasis is placed on the development of skills in experimental design and interpretation. Students will learn advanced modern laboratory techniques (such as chromatography, spectrophotometry, microarrays, antibody assays and microscopy). Students should expect regular reading, from both a traditional textbook and other sources such as scientific journals.

    Prerequisites: Earn a B+ in Biology or have their Biology teacher’s permission.

  • Anatomy & Physiology

    Human Anatomy and Physiology is a course that includes an in-depth study of the eleven body systems that maintain homeostasis from anatomical, physiological, and histological perspectives. The structure and function of the body’s systems will be investigated using microscope investigations, laboratory exercises, and dissections designed to give the student hands-on experience with different tissues and organ systems. Additionally, students will be exposed to topics such as medical careers, medical ethics, healthcare and health insurance, as well as what it is like to live with a chronic condition. This course culminates with a visit to the Division of Clinical Anatomy at Stanford University where students will have access to interactive digital resources, physical models, and cadaver specimens. This course will be extremely beneficial to those students seeking a future in health-related fields, however, any student would benefit from taking this course as a way to gain a better understanding of how their bodies are designed and the best way to take care of it.

    Prerequisites: Complete Chemistry.

  • AP Chemistry

    AP Chemistry is a challenging and exciting course which provides an in-depth understanding of chemistry. At the end of the course, students are prepared to take the AP Chemistry Exam. AP Chemistry probes deeply into the nature of matter and its changes on both the macroscopic and microscopic levels. Topics include the structure of matter, chemical bonding and orbitals, quantum mechanics, and the role of energy and entropy in reactions among others. The course promotes a qualitative (i.e. descriptive) understanding of chemistry and has a substantial quantitative (i.e. using math and numbers) component as well. The focus of AP Chemistry is on problem-solving. There is little to memorize; instead, students master the concepts and learn to apply them to solve many, many problems. In the lab, students learn to be independent as they devise their exact procedure in many of the labs. This course is ideal for those who enjoy the many challenges of science.

    Prerequisites: Earn a B+ in Accelerated Chemistry, or earn an A in Conceptual Chemistry and have Conceptual Chemistry teacher’s permission.

  • AP Physics 2

    AP Physics 2 is a college-level course in physics designed for students interested in studying physics as a basis for more advanced work in the life sciences, medicine, geology, and related areas, or as a component in a non-science college program that has science requirements.  Credit for advanced placement for the AP Physics 2 course provides the student with an opportunity either to have an accelerated college program or to meet a basic science requirement; in either case, the student’s college program will be enriched.

    The course includes topics in both classical and modern physics. A knowledge of algebra and basic trigonometry is required for the course; the basic ideas of calculus may be introduced in connection with physical concepts, such as acceleration and work.  Understanding of the basic principles involved and the ability to apply these principles in the solution of problems are the major goals of the course.  The lecture stresses the concepts of physics. The labs develop skills of experimentation, observation, analysis, and use of lab equipment including computers.  Problem-solving emphasizes mathematical and analytical skills as applied to physical laws and concepts.

    The course seeks to be representative of topics covered in similar college courses, as determined by periodic surveys. Accordingly, goals have been set for coverage of six general areas:  mechanics, fluids, kinetic theory and thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, waves and optics, and modern physics.

    Prerequisites: Rising sophomores: earn an A in Physics and have Physics’ teachers permission. Rising juniors and seniors:  earn an A- in Physics both semesters or have Ms. Jensen’s permission.


  • Environmental Science

    Did you know that the 2017 hurricane season was the most expensive season on record, costing the United States approximately $280 billion dollars in damages? Have you heard of the term environmental injustice; the majority of those housed near toxic waste sites, congested highways, and landfills are disproportionately people of color in the United States, meaning those populations are subjected to higher air, water, and soil pollution? Many project that by the year 2050 wars will be fought over resources such as clean water and food shortages due to major drought and other natural disasters. The study of environmental science and the need for environmental activism, policy, and reform are paramount to the continued success of our species. Your generation more than any other will see a slew of new environmental issues crop up, and will be responsible for solutions for lasting change. Become a part of this vital and exciting conversation.

    This class will be highly interdisciplinary, pulling from geology, earth science, chemistry, biology, history, political science, and current events. Through field trips, lab activities, and outdoor field research we will study the environment and our impact on it, and use critical thinking skills to propose solutions to some of the most important issues of our time.

    Open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

  • Quantum Mechanics (H) 1S Electromagnetism and Relativity (H) 2S

    This is an advanced course in physics where we discover the fascinating world of
    Harmonic Motion, Rotational dynamics, Electro-magnetism, Super-conductivity,
    Quantum Mechanics, Relativity theory and Particle physics. Students will be
    challenged to think in four dimensions, apply calculus to real world problems and
    suspend how they think the universe works in order to be open to how it really
    works. Students will read articles in cutting edge physics, solve problems in topics
    of current research and do hands on experiments. Students will be very well
    prepared for the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam from this course. Students
    can also prepare for the AP Physics C: Mechanics test with their knowledge from AP Physics 2, material from this class and some extra work outside of class. If you are part philosopher, part engineer and part scientist with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for solving tough problems this class is for you.

    Prerequisites: Completion of or simultaneously taking AP Calculus BC and Completion of AP Physics 2.

  • Experimental Archaeology 1S OR 2S

    This is a spring or fall semester-long interdisciplinary, project-based course set mostly in our new outdoor classroom. The aim of the course is to explore how humans moved from the Stone Age into the Bronze Age by exploring Archaeology, Ancient History, Science, and Art.

    Students will carry out a series of experiments over the semester to learn and replicate skills from fire lighting and flint knapping to pottery making and bronze casting. Students need to be willing to get their hands dirty as many of the experiments will be carried out in an outdoor setting, and you will get dirty! At the same time, we will look at how archaeologists work and we will learn about some of the most important archaeological sites and civilizations from around the world. The course will end with a simulated archaeological excavation and a final project in which the students will use the skills they have mastered to create an object from one of the civilizations covered in the course.

    Open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

Science FAQ


Why “Physics First?”
First, it’s important to note that ninth grade Physics at Menlo is not the same as 11th grade Physics at other schools. We have stripped out the advanced math and made it age appropriate for ninth graders. The emphasis is on the conceptual understanding of Physics, with some basic algebraic expressions to experimentally validate the theoretical assertions.

The great thing about teaching Physics to ninth graders is that we can demonstrate almost every principle we teach. Whether studying waves, optics, projectile motion, momentum, sound, or electricity (just to name a few), students are given opportunities to observe these phenomena in the lab and in everyday life. It isn’t long before students are sharing their “Physics moments” with their teacher as they realize that Physics is not an abstract science but rather a set of explanations of how the world works.

Another question about the Physics-Chemistry-Biology sequence taught at Menlo is not why Physics is taught first, but rather why Biology is taught last. The answer to that question is that Biology has changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years with the advancement of genetic engineering. Biology is no longer the memorization of the parts of a cell and the dissection of a frog. A true appreciation of Biology requires a foundation in Chemistry at the micro level, and an examination of biological systems at a macro level. Just as ninth grade Physics at Menlo is not the same as 11th grade Physics elsewhere, I can assure you that 11th grade Biology at Menlo is not the same as ninth grade Biology elsewhere.

How should my child prepare for Physics?
Read this letter from the Science Department Chair about how to prepare.

What should my child do if she or he finds Physics very difficult?
The first thing to do is to determine exactly what it is about Physics that your child finds difficult. No child is the same, and each is faced with different challenges in the course. Is it the workload, the pace, the attention to detail, the math, the concepts, the reading, etc.? Thus, the first step is to have your child meet with his or her teacher to identify the specific challenges and come up with a game plan. As the challenges vary, so do the solutions. It is important to note that Physics requires conceptual thinking that is a stretch for some 13-14-year-olds. Students who have had success in previous science classes through memorization and mastery of certain formulas may find Physics to be difficult. We have been teaching Physics to ninth graders for many years, and we understand this. We want students who struggle to show initiative by meeting with their teachers as soon as they encounter difficulty. At Menlo, going to a teacher for help is not a sign of weakness but rather one of maturity, and learning to advocate for oneself is an essential skill that we teach at Menlo in preparation for college.

Can my child test out of ninth grade Physics?
No, all ninth graders are required to take Physics 1 or Conceptual Physics.

Can my child take AP Physics his or her freshman year?
No, Physics 1 is a prerequisite for AP Physics.

What’s the difference between AP Physics 2 and AP Physics C?
AP Physics 2 is a second-year introductory course in physics without calculus.  It corresponds to the second semester of a college-level course in physics designed for students interested in studying physics as a basis for more advanced work in the life sciences, medicine, geology, and related areas, or as a component in a non-science college program that has science requirements.  It builds on concepts from Physics 1 (motion, force, energy, momentum); students will study advanced topics comprising fluids, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and modern physics.   It’s somewhat inquiry-based but also involves problem-solving.  AP Physics C is a 2-semester course comprising one semester of mechanics and one semester of electricity and magnetism.  It is a calculus-based course commensurate with the first two semesters of study for physics and engineering majors; it’s more limited in breadth than the AP Physics 2 course but delves much deeper into the mathematical side of physics.   

Students in both classes will take the AP Physics test in May.  Students in AP Physics 2 are highly encouraged to also take the SAT Physics subject test.  In AP Physics 2, class time after the AP exam will be devoted to SAT review and learning of concepts on the SAT that are not included in the AP Physics 2 curriculum.  

Because of the narrow scope of the AP Physics C course, it is not considered to be adequate preparation for the SAT Physics subject exam.

Credit for advanced placement for either course provides the student with an opportunity either to have an accelerated college program or to meet a basic science requirement; in either case, the student’s college program will be enriched.


What’s the difference between Conceptual Chemistry and Accelerated Chemistry?
Accelerated Chemistry advances more quickly, covering more topics than Conceptual Chemistry; the level and variety of problems considered, numerical and otherwise, is also higher. Conceptual Chemistry will focus on fundamental principles and the significance of those principles to the natural and engineered world. Because the pace and difficulty are adjusted to reflect student skills, time becomes available for discussion and laboratory exploration in both courses. Though Conceptual Chemistry covers fewer topics with less emphasis on numerical methods, both Chemistry courses prepare sophomores for junior Biology, which remains the sole, core science course offering for juniors. Lastly, students in Accelerated Chemistry receive a 0.3 “bump” in their grade point average, as we do with all our honors and AP classes.

Should my child take Conceptual or Accelerated Chemistry?
Students who have achieved an A- or better in the first semester of Physics are eligible for Accelerated Chemistry, though they are not required to take it. Students earning below an A- who wish to take Accelerated Chemistry should speak with their Physics instructor; typically eligibility is granted on a provisional basis pending the outcome of second semester grades.

Students interested in taking AP Chemistry in their junior or senior year should take—and excel in—Accelerated Chemistry, though it is possible for a truly outstanding student in Conceptual Chemistry to be recommended for AP Chemistry.

In choosing which class to take, students and their parents should consider the School’s advice on the balance vs. rigor question. Students pursuing science or engineering disciplines at highly selective colleges are advised to take a rigorous program, and Accelerated Chemistry would meet this criteria.

Finally, every year there are students who earn B grades in Accelerated Chemistry and yet drop the course because they believe such grades are unacceptable. It is important to note that, first, the School does not consider a B in a very demanding course to be anything to be ashamed of, and, second, the reality is that switching courses midway through the semester may or may not be possible. We have had students in the past who have had to drop their elective course in order to accommodate the change from Accelerated to Conceptual Chemistry, so we strongly advise students to do their homework when it comes to course selection by talking to current sophomores and meeting with their Physics teacher. Once a student has made a decision on his or her courses, we expect them to stick with it.

Will Conceptual Chemistry and Accelerated Chemistry prepare me for the SAT Subject Test in Chemistry?
The simple answer is “yes” for Accelerated Chemistry and “no” for Conceptual Chemistry. Students in the Accelerated course are exposed to 95% or more of the topics covered on the exam, as well as the quantitative methods needed for success. Because the Conceptual course focuses on building a deep understanding of core concepts, a good deal of higher-level concepts and quantitative reasoning are omitted. Students interested in taking the SAT Subject Test in Chemistry should attend at least one of Menlo’s free prep sessions (in the spring) to familiarize themselves with the exam and determine what kind of score they can expect to earn.

Can a student in Conceptual Chemistry take AP Chemistry?
Students who might be interested in taking AP Chemistry in their junior or senior year are strongly advised to take—and excel in—Accelerated Chemistry. It is our experience that the transition from Conceptual Chemistry to AP Chemistry is challenging for students to navigate.


Why don’t you teach AP Biology?
Curriculum for the Advanced Topics in Biology course allows additional time for students to focus on newer topics while developing better critical thinking skills through more advanced lab work. Students are prepared for and may take the AP Biology exam if they so choose.

Will Biology prepare my child for the SAT II?
The Biology curriculum does not cover all the material that is on the SAT Subject Test. That is not to say that the students don’t get a solid understanding of the major themes, but as with most tests, there are some details that the test looks for that we don’t cover in class. The test is divided into two sections: Molecular Biology/Evolution and Ecology/Evolution. Students make a choice as to which they would like to take on the day of the test. We encourage those Menlo students who choose to take the SAT Subject Test to do the Ecology/Evolution section, as it more closely aligns with our curriculum. Students also have the option to attend free on-campus SAT Subject Test prep classes that we hold prior to the exam.

Meet our Upper School Science faculty.