The Balance and the Book: Laboratory and Natural Sciences at St. John’s

The lab program at St. John’s is one of a kind. All students study the sciences (including physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and more) as part of our one, interdisciplinary major. There is no separate science building which marks sciences apart from the humanities — although we do have separate lab classrooms, equipped with fixings like lab benches, sinks, fume hoods, and other infrastructure necessary to run experiments. But these classrooms are often used for other classes, such as seminars, and feature the same square wooden tables for the class to gather around in discussion as any other St. John’s classroom.

This lack of spatial separation serves a larger point: that we don’t believe in separating the disciplines. Our society often tries to draw a distinction between academic subjects, dividing them into categories like “STEM” and “humanities” and “the arts.” At St. John’s, we believe these distinctions to be largely arbitrary and, furthermore, largely useless. The body of knowledge we hold is all one tapestry, interwoven with threads of many colors and materials. There is little use picking it apart to respool the threads, and doing so only spoils the image, ripping out the richness and detail from the tapestry inch by inch. That is what the division of knowledge does to the beauty of human thought. (Some people call a program like this “interdisciplinary,” but I’m more poetic!)

That is why every student at St. John’s studies every subject. Johnnies learn philosophy and history alongside music and Ancient Greek, in turn alongside mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics.

It is the last three subjects that form the core of our lab program. Of course, in keeping with the St. John’s ethos, we don’t divide our courses up by “subject,” but students mainly study biology and chemistry in their freshman year, and chemistry and physics in junior and senior year. There is no lab program in sophomore year, as the class slot is replaced by music.

For me, lab happened to be assigned on Friday morning during my freshman year. It’s a distinct experience, not one you will find entirely familiar from high-school science classes you may have taken. There’s a thrill to it, gathering around the honey-colored square table in the pristine morning light. Seeing the anticipatory faces of your new classmates after gazing through amber glass at the dusty old fascinating and strange scientific instruments in the cabinets in the hall. A whole new world of discovery feels like it’s at your fingertips.

And you wouldn’t be wrong to think so. There is a whole new world poised for you to discover. From the cells up, from the world of animal anatomy to the world of atoms, from dissections to electricity to the simple beauty of a magnolia leaf. The St. John’s lab is an eye-opening experience. It teaches you to look at the world in not just one but many new ways. There is much you can take from the lab program over your time at St. John’s, but the one thing that is guaranteed: you won’t come out the same as you went in.

The science we teach in lab is straight from the original works of great thinkers throughout history. We study Newton, Aristotle, Lobachevsky, Einstein, and more. While some of those authors we study, especially in our first year, espouse theories that have since been proven by others to be false, the thinking they laid out and the experiments they describe have still been foundational, including to the authors and scientists who would later produce the theories that would debunk those earlier ones. It’s important to scientific thinking to understand the process of how the ideas we now think to be true developed, including the now-thought-outdated ideas they built off.

We at St. John’s aim to be inquirers as much as we aim to be students of the greats. We strive to ask questions for ourselves, not just absorb the wisdom of those who have gone before us. The lab program serves this goal as we ourselves recreate the experiments done by the authors whose work we read, instead of just reading them. We teach our students to apply the scientific method themselves to various questions that might arise, and to follow the same steps taken by those before us. Examples of experiments done in the lab tutorial include dissections and watching videos of dissections, catching fish in College Creek to study their behavior in tanks, recreating Leyden jars and Faraday cages, sketching magnolia leaves to learn their form, selectively breeding microscopic organisms to watch their traits express through the generations, and more! Famously, many of us study the unusual amphibian known as the axolotl, which has become an unofficial mascot of the college. This unique creature has been invaluable to scientific research for centuries, mainly due to its remarkable ability to heal itself.

As you can see, not all the experiments we practice are the kind you might be used to. In our discipline-blending tradition, we encourage students to get hands-on and experience the natural world around our campuses, and we mix elements of art and other disciplines into the lab practices.

At St. John’s, we spend an awful lot of time (enjoyable time!) inside with our books. The lab tutorial makes a good break from that, encouraging us to get outside and really experience the world around us. Rain, shine, grey, or snow, you can find lab students outside, taking classes on the grass in nice weather, in the courtyards examining magnolia trees, on the docks by College Creek, or walking to the planetarium or the Ptolemy stone.

On a more practical note, the lab program can set you up for future success in post-graduate studies or your dream career. When studying our lab curriculum, you gain valuable skills across the sciences, both theoretical knowledge and lab skills. Our alumni currently excelling in the sciences include Bill Donahue (’67), tutor emeritus and winner of the 2022 LeRoy E. Doggett Prize for Historical Astronomy, Erin Wiles (’10), an electro-magnetic engineer for spacecraft company Blue Origin, Shannon Hateley (’07), a computational biologist and senior staff scientist at Ancestry, nuclear physicist and cancer researcher Cynthia Keppel Hellman (’84), NASA contractor Josh Foster (’97), and many more! These graduates credit St. John’s with forming a key part of what got them to where they are today.

Not every Johnnie, of course, will consider themselves the scientific type. Many of our students are more given to considering themselves as artists, linguists, historians, or debaters. They come to us with a gift for words, music, fine arts, or understanding of theology or philosophy. These students are as valuable to the St. John’s community as our scientists, and they can get just as much value from the lab curriculum.

Not every student who comes into St. John’s considers themselves a budding scientist. I, for one, came in thinking of myself as a failure at science, whose experience in high-school biology and chemistry classes had been one of struggling with, or, it felt like, against subject matter that seemed so oblique I would probably have preferred that it be Ancient Greek. No amount of struggle, dedication, or time spent had managed to make me good at high-school science. I went into my lab class quite frankly afraid. I did not want another educational experience, much less one I was looking forward to as much as I was looking forward to St. John’s, to be ruined because I couldn’t get my head around a compulsory science class. I had barely, after all, failed my twelfth-grade chemistry class, by just a few grade points.

By junior year, my lab class was my favorite class, and my highest grade. In fact, I ended up choosing my junior lab tutor to be my senior paper advisor, because I felt I connected so well with his class, and in turn with him. I had gone into eighth grade loving science and left twelfth grade afraid of it. St. John’s brought back my love of science. I was able to enjoy learning and discovering things for its own sake. I no longer felt like I was being forced to swim uphill in a stream I could barely understand the dimensions of. I felt like my classmates were on my side, helping each other learn, rather than competing against me to receive the best grades. Best of all, I was able to open my mind to a skill I never thought I’d be good at. To me, that mind-broadening approach to learning is one of the best parts of St. John’s, and I will always be grateful to have been able to experience it.

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