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.
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. Advanced Topics in Physics is a 2-semester course comprising one semester classical and quantum mechanics and one semester of relativity and 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 be prepared to take the AP Physics tests in May.
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.
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.
Meet our Upper School Science faculty.