As we approach final exams and the conclusion of the Fall semester, it’s useful to step back and look at some of the remarkable things students have been doing recently in OHS classes. While the perspective this week might well look like a bunch of papers, problem sets, and review, the semester has seen a lot of creative and innovative work as well. In particular, a sampling of recent activities across the curriculum highlights several characteristics of the OHS academic program and community.
In this spotlight, some of the richness of our courses is on display, not simply in terms of the deep and advanced content, but also in the connections drawn between often abstract or theoretical concepts and contemporary concerns, research, and innovation. These connections range from the creative but also rigorous application of theory to practice, to the exploration of concepts and themes through a variety of media and across centuries. Such activities certainly enrich students’ appreciation of the material as well as their ability to deploy what they’ve learned in a variety of academic and professional contexts. And they represent deep convictions and commitments among OHS instructors to bring the disciplines we love fully into contact with the concerns and diverse subject matters that will shape our students’ lives.
Also apparent in this encapsulation of recent activities is the ever-thickening network of connections in our community, among teachers and students, explored in class and competition and pastime. In each of the activities described, it is clear how the context of a community of passionate fellow students con- tributes to the excitement and fruitfulness of the experience. Whether it is in the diversity of interest and expertise of other students in the discussion sections that are ever more central to the OHS academic program, or in the collaboration and support students find in one another and in a growing range of school-sponsored events, our community is clearly a growing and absolutely unique resource for students and for the school.
Ms. Tock reports that it has been a lively semester in JS008 Foundations in Science: Energy and Matter. The class has launched rockets, measured shadows at local noon, built hovercrafts (yes, really!), activated glowsticks at different temperatures, assembled spectrometers, and aimed hairdryers at weights dangling from the ends of rubber bands. In the process, they’ve learned about how things move, from bullets to meatballs to the Mars Science Lab, which was launched the day after Thanksgiving and which they learned about in detail from Dr. Steve Lee, a NASA scientist who gave a fascinating guest lecture to the class. “We are looking forward to more excitement to come next term as we delve deeper into our newly-undertaken studies of chemistry!”
Students at the high-school level have been having a little fun, too. Over Thanksgiving Break, some AP Biology students completed an extra credit project of analyzing the biology in science fiction films, considering the biological explanations presented in movies such as Avatar, GATTACA, Jurassic Park, and Little Shop of Horrors. Research Topics in Biology took students to the cutting edge of actual science in a midterm that called for an analysis of a primary re- search paper – less than a week old – concerning cancer stem cells in skin tumors. (Beck, B., A vascular niche and a VEGF-Nrp1 loop regulate the initiation and stemness of skin tumors; Nature, 20 October 2011, 478: 399-403.) Dr. Failor was impressed with the variety and depth of responses regarding the importance of the paper and potential hypotheses for the development of a perivascular niche in this disease.
All of this work is finding its way into extracurriculars as well. Students are hard at work preparing for the SLAC Regional Science Bowl which will take place on February 11, 2012. A team of five students will congregate on campus that weekend to compete and are preparing as a team on Fridays in Centra. While the high-school team looks to build on its success at the regional level last year, a new middle-school team has also formed. They are led by Ms. Tock and are looking forward to competition.
During Fall 2011, Dr. Paquin’s UM51A Linear Algebra students completed a wide range of theoretical and applied assignments on matrix theory, linear transformations, vectors spaces, dimension, determinants, eigenvalues and eigenvectors, and diagonalization. In particular, the students are now able to precisely describe the difference between, for example, a 7-dimensional space and a 17-dimensional space, and can explain how to efficiently and precisely compute very large powers of a matrix. Dr. Paquin particularly enjoyed their work on several applications projects. In one such project, students used linear algebra to explain the mathematics behind the operation of global positioning systems (GPS). In another project, students used diagonalization of matrices to develop a closed formula for the Fibonacci sequence!
Meanwhile, OM4AB AP Calculus AB students have discovered the beauty, excitement, and intrigue of differential calculus, and are well on their way to doing so for integral calculus as well. Her students can, for example, explain how to compute the slope of the tangent line to the graph of a (perhaps very messy!) function at a particular point, and can describe why this is important for theoretical and applied mathematics. As a particular example, her students can, using Calculus, tell you where to sit in a movie theatre in order to maximize the view of the screen (by maximizing the angle θ subtended by the screen at your eyes). Dr. Paquin was particularly impressed with her students’ presentations on using calculus to completely analyze the graph of a rational function.
In the humanities, several courses have delved into a variety of media, both in production and consumption. 2nd and 3rd year Chinese classes have been making short videos (in Chinese) to give introductions to teenage life that feature their lives, homes, and communities, to provide creative continuations for some traditional stories, and to model ways to include more Chinese and less English in the classroom. Dr. Lamont’s AP English Language and Composition class, meanwhile, is taking up a student tradition by gathering in Centra for a virtual movie night (each student streaming on his or her own computer) featuring Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, having just read the play in class. AP and Latin III students are completing creative projects about either the Catilinarian conspiracy (Latin III) or Vergil’s Aeneid (AP Latin). Each year, more students choose to make movies, and at least three short films are being created this semester. Other students are writing historical fiction about individuals from Roman history or using visual media to interpret a scene from the Aeneid. Latin II students, similarly, are completing a prose composition assignment in which they were asked to translate an English passage of their choosing into Latin. Students chose to translate the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the text from a few Dilbert comic strips, an English translation of a canto from Dante’s Inferno, and passages from “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Harry Potter,” among other works.
Looking outside of the classroom, The Latin Club is gearing up for the California Junior Classical League convention, which will be held in late March 2012. Projects for the convention include: making a working catapult and chariot, creating a school banner and t-shirt, and starting a Latin Club website. The Latin Club recently hosted Dr. Vince Tomasso, an expert on the modern reception of classical mythology, to talk about modern reinterpretations of the myth of Hercules. In preparation, Latin Club students (and Magistra Haas) watched Disney’s Hercules as a group.
In keeping with the social and cultural approach to the study of the World Wars, students in Dr. Knezevic’s The Two World Wars course have also engaged with a range of materials and media in addition to the historical scholarship and primary sources they’ve read. They watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, “Paths of Glory,” loosely based on the French mutinies of 1917 (and banned in France until 1975), as well as Leni Riefensthal’s propaganda film of the 1934 Nuremberg rallies, “Triumph of the Will.” For their major essay assignment, students wrote a historical analysis of a work of literature of their choice coming out of the First World War. The works students chose to write on included: Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, and Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk.
Core, finally, has recently attended explicitly to the role of philosophy in a general education in a research colloquium on the topic. In this spirit, Dr. Weil reports that toward the end of this semester in Democracy, Freedom, and the Rule of Law (DFRL), the class has been focusing on some of the practical challenges facing a democracy of the sort that is operative in the United States (and proposed alternatives) – for example, whether deliberative processes, which have as a goal mutual compromise on all sides of an issue, could in reality ever accomplish this goal. Recently one of the students spent a weekend at a Model United Nations conference, which to some extent had a similar purpose as its target, and his experiences lent great insight into some of the logistical and social difficulties any such attempt encounters.