An Independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, D.C.

Science

S tudents are required to earn three full-year laboratory science credits (biology, chemistry, physics). Four years of science is recommended. Each course emphasizes practical investigation of the physical or natural world. Courses focus on the synthesis of facts into concepts, model building, and the use of scientific literature and databases to build foundations for understanding scientific inquiry.

To see how a student progresses through science over the four years, please click here. Each student consults with his or her advisor and with the science department to determine the most sensible selection and sequencing of courses. Students must complete a course of study in biology, chemistry and physics before enrolling in senior elective science courses unless they receive permission from the department. Enrollment in AP science courses is with the recommendation of the Science Department. Calculus is a pre-requisite or co-requisite for enrollment in the AP Physics course.

Biology

This comprehensive study of biology begins by examining the structure of the cell, which is the lens through which the material is examined throughout the course of the year. With an emphasis on experimental design and problem solving, students will collaborate in their analysis of data to better understand biological concepts. Topics covered will include the structure- function relationship of macromolecules, the continuity and diversity of the DNA molecule, the processes of cell division and specialization, inheritance patterns, the variations and changes that occur in populations, and the interdependence of organisms in nature both in terms of relationship (structure/function/adaptation) and in terms of energy requirements. The culmination of the course is an exploration of the connections between these topics through an in-depth examination of systems of the body. Laboratory exercises and scientific literacy are integral parts of the course. Students will be assessed through homework assignments, lab writing, group projects, presentations, quizzes, tests, lab practicals, and semester exams.

Biology Accelerated

The Accelerated Biology course explores fundamental and advanced biological concepts through the lens of evolution. Using an inquiry based approach, students follow the scientific method to conduct independent laboratory investigations, evaluate case studies, and analyze research data. Through this process, students develop a deep understanding of how living systems assemble, operate, and interact based on the instructions of genetic material. Students are regularly asked to apply their knowledge to novel biological problems, write sophisticated laboratory reports and evaluate current scientific publications. Topics covered include: in-depth biochemistry, cellular composition, protein synthesis, gene expression, cell division, genetic inheritance, population genetics, cellular energetics, human anatomy and physiology, ecology, and DNA technology. Sophisticated laboratory work, both in the classroom and outdoors on the school’s campus, is an integral component of the course. Students will be assessed through homework assignments, lab writing, group projects, presentations, quizzes, tests, lab practicals, and semester exams.

Biology Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement Biology is a year-long course that is equivalent to a college introductory biology course taken by biology majors. The focus of the course is to help students develop a conceptual understanding of biological processes. The AP Biology curriculum centers around key concepts and their related biological content, organized around essential principles called big ideas and enduring understandings. Essential to the conceptual framework, are seven science practices incorporated within the course to illustrate the process and the methodology used by scientists. The four big ideas developed by the College Board include Evolution, Energy processes, Information, and Interdependence. Outstanding reading skills are essential in this course, both to read and analyze the text book information, as well as to read critically the questions on the AP exam. To assess their understanding, students will take quizzes and tests, design and perform labs, write lab report in a timely manner, and present data and scientific publications to their peers.

Chemistry

Chemistry explores the nature of matter. Students investigate the particulate theory of matter through classroom instruction, demonstrations, and hands-on laboratory exercises. They focus on atomic structure, atomic theory and bonding, and investigate relationships in chemical reactions and gas behavior through conceptual and quantitative techniques.. The central core of the course mainly arises from topics in descriptive and inorganic chemistry, although brief discussions of several concepts in organic chemistry are also presented. An important part of the courser elates factual material to applications in everyday life. Students are assessed through tests, homework, and lab exercises, with the latter focusing on the scientific style of writing.

Chemistry Advanced Placement

Advanced Placement Chemistry is a college level chemistry course that uses Sophomore Chemistry as a foundation. In this course, students will delve deeper into advanced concepts of chemistry as they prepare to take the AP Chemistry exam in May. Such topics include thermodynamics, chemical kinetics, equilibrium reactions, acid-base reactions, and electrochemistry. The topics covered mirror those encountered in a college level freshman course. An advanced chemistry laboratory component also accompanies this course, supplementing the material taught in the lecture. By the completion of the course, students will have a better understanding of the concepts covered in a college level general chemistry course. In order for this to occur, students will learn to apply the general concepts learned in each chapter to solve more complicated chemical inquiries that are not limited to one specific theory. Students will demonstrate their proficiency in lecture and lab topics through structured homework sets and worksheets, quizzes, tests and lab reports.

Chemistry QA: A Quantitative Analysis

This course is an introductory chemistry course that is accompanied by a full laboratory program, aimed at strengthening the conceptual material covered in class. The course is designed to educate students on the fundamental and central themes of chemistry, such as the classification of matter, atomic structure, chemical bonding, symbols, equation writing, basic Stoichiometry and equilibrium. The course will supply students with an adequate background to pursue more advanced options in chemistry and the sciences. By the end of the course, students will have achieved two main objectives. First, the student will understand the central principles of chemical reactivity from a theoretical viewpoint. In order to correctly do this, students must understand the reasons why a chemical reaction occurs on the molecular or atomic level, and then how it can be studied. Second, the student will understand chemical reactivity and properties from a practical viewpoint. In order to achieve this, the student must have a good understanding of laboratory experimentation, analysis, and problem-solving. This active, hands-on approach to chemistry incorporates the practical nature of chemistry with the theoretical basis set forth by scientists, and encourages analytical thought. This course is designed to explore the subject matter more deeply and broadly than a typical high school chemistry class. Therefore, topics will be covered in a fast-paced manner with high student expectations. Students will demonstrate their proficiency in lecture and lab topics through structured homework sets and worksheets, quizzes, tests and lab reports.

Physics

Physics is designed to enable each student to construct his or her own knowledge about the mechanical universe. Through a combination of guided inquiry labs, traditional lecture, and homework problems, students will study mechanics, waves, sound, optics, electricity and magnetism, and modern physics. Students will explore the fundamental principles of physics as expressed in words and in equations, and will build and test simple mathematical models by combining those concepts. Students will learn to understand and communicate data in graphical and numerical form. The class will place emphasis on understanding concrete, everyday phenomena. Assessments will include tests, group projects and presentations, homework problem sets, and two semester exams.

Physics: Mathematical Models

Physics: Mathematical Models guides students through qualitative and quantitative inquiry into the laws and theories of physics. The students will learn to make predictions, carry out investigations, and articulate their findings and understandings in mathematical terms. The course presents the development of scientific models for mechanics, energy, waves, electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, and modern physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics. Students will learn to develop and use mathematical models to make quantitative predictions about the behavior of physical systems in the Universe,obtain a deep and thorough grasp of the scientific process, and learn how to effectively design controlled experiments and collect and analyze data. Students will be assessed through problem sets, quizzes,tests, laboratory reports and practicals.

Physics, Advanced Placement C: Mechanics

Advanced Placement Physics C: Mechanics covers the traditional syllabus offered as the first college-level course in physical mechanics. Students conduct and design experiments, critically analyzing, interpreting, and drawing inferences from the results through the use of graphing and analysis software. Observations and experimental data often are based on input received through the use of computer interfaced sensors, probes, and other technological instruments. Students learn to communicate their results with technical proficiency, suggesting ways to improve the experiments and proposing questions for further studies. The course utilizes guided inquiry and student-centered learning to foster the development of critical thinking skills developing introductory differential and integral calculus throughout. In such a way, students concentrate on basic principles of mechanics and their applications through the in-depth study of selected topics. Students will be assessed through online homework assignments, laboratory exercises, quizzes, technical presentations, and unit tests.


SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING RESEARCH CENTER (SERC) COURSES

The Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) Track provides Upper School students an opportunity to pursue a topic of interest in science, math or engineering. Although topics may span from purely theoretical to laboratory research to the physical construction of a novel device, the underlying concept is expected to be original in nature and address a question that has not been previously answered. Ideally, the project is one that allows the student to work in partnership with an outside lab or commercial firm during the eleventh grade school year and then over the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades (possibly the summer before also).

SERC: Accelerated Integrated Chemistry and Physics (10th grade):

This course provides students with an integrated, quantitative overview of chemistry and physics. Through problem- solving, mathematical modeling, and laboratory work, the students will learn the core, critical concepts of chemistry and physics and the key features that unify the two disciplines. The central role of mathematics as a universal language of science is emphasized. Upon successful completion of the course, students in the SERC track will be prepared to take Advanced Placement Chemistry and Advanced Placement Physics in their future years at Potomac. This course is open only to students in the SERC track. Enrollment in Advanced Algebra II or a more advanced math course is a co-requisite for this course. While some standard topics in chemistry and physics are “standalone” topics, this course integrates much of the material in the two disciplines. This multidisciplinary approach will provide SERC students with knowledge and experience in the three core areas of biology, chemistry, and physics by the end of their tenth grade year, as well as the recognition that most work in science now lies in areas that span two or more disciplines.

SERC: Topics in Science and Engineering (10th grade):

The overarching goal of the SERC program is for students to identify a topic in science or engineering about which they have both a deep interest and the ability to explore independently during their 11th grade year. Due to the quantity of material covered in the core science classes, it is a challenge for students to delve deeply into a given topic that interests them. The Topics in Science and Engineering course begins this process by looking at various types of research and discoveries and then linking them to the fields and disciplines that made them possible. As students consider possible topics, they read current journal articles and scientific papers, some of which they also present to the class. These presentations help students develop and expand their research and communication skills and act as a stimulus for ideas about which they might form their own topic or question. Students will engage in projects that allow them to examine the steps required to properly structure an experiment or project in order to adequately test a hypothesis. When students are reasonably sure of their direction, they contact professionals working within their area of interest and then read current research papers in order to refine their topic. This work is organized into a short research proposal that is submitted to the science department for approval in the spring.

SERC: Advanced Independent Research (11th grade):

This course provides the students with an individualized opportunity to pursue the research question they proposed at the end of their tenth grade year. The students have a class period each day dedicated to working on their projects. Ideally, students will have both a Potomac science teacher and an outside mentor advising them during the school year. Students are expected to spend time in the summer after eleventh grade working with their outside mentor or taking part in a science research internship program. The time commitment for the summer work or internship is usually six weeks. Students and their families should understand that the summer internship is an important priority in this program, and therefore it may not be possible to pursue other lengthy summer commitments. This summer work with professional scientists is an essential and valuable component of the SERC experience.

SERC: Documentation and Presentation (12th grade):

The major work of the SERC program is completed by the end of the summer between the junior and senior year. Unlike other SERC classes, this course is not scheduled into a specific class period. Faculty will work with the students at a mutually agreeable time at the beginning of the school year. This course provides an opportunity for the students to assemble and present their findings. Students will create a professional paper written in the tone, style, and format typically used within their area of study. If appropriate and if desired, the paper may be submitted to a relevant journal, submitted to a national competition, and/or provided to their outside mentor(s) (who may include it as part of a larger journal submission). In addition, students will prepare a presentation describing their work to the science department, other SERC students, and any others interested.


SCIENCE ELECTIVES

Bioengineering

Bioengineering is a course which provides students the framework for the process of doing science. It is a joint venture between the Potomac School, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh to isolate and characterize mycobacteriophages (bacterial viruses), a part of the National Genomics Research Initiative. Students spend half of the course isolating and purifying a single bacterial virus and analyzing its genomic characteristics. The second half of the course introduces students to the field of bioinformatics, a tool for annotating and comparing viral genomes in order to understand the diversity of these viruses in the environment. Through this authentic research experience, students get acquainted with the process of keeping a laboratory notebook and develop critical thinking skills by targeting their protocols to best answer their research question. Students are assessed by the accuracy and quality of their laboratory notebooks.

Anatomy and Physiology

Anatomy and Physiology focuses on topics related to the way the human body is structured and the way it functions. Through problem-based laboratory exercises, students will explore topics such as cell transport, structural organization, the endocrine and cardiovascular systems, and exercise physiology. Students will gain a better understanding of how their body works and what they can do to ensure its health and longevity. Students will be assessed through quizzes, tests, laboratory exercises, and presentations.

Engineering and Design

Engineering can be defined as the art and science of applying scientific knowledge to practical problems. This course is of special interest for students who are considering majoring in an engineering discipline or an applied science. It is intended to introduce the student to a wide variety of engineering fields and provide an examination of various core disciplines. The course is based on both individual and group work using a multidisciplinary approach that stresses the unity of the fields of science, mathematics, physics, and engineering. Approximately 50% of the class is focused on projects that require students to design and build prototypes to accomplish a specific design criteria or task. Students will also complete daily homework assignments and take a quiz with each unit. The final project, a collaborative effort based on their areas of personal interest, will be an example of problem finding as much as problem solving.

Environmental Science

Environmental science is the study of the interactions between living things and their environment with a major focus on how human activity impacts the biological and chemical makeup of our natural world. This interdisciplinary course is designed to provide students with a comprehensive scientific understanding of ecological processes and factors that influence the health and well being of all life on earth. Topics of study include energy flow, biogeochemical cycling, biodiversity decline, habitat destruction from rainforests to reefs, global climate change, food and agriculture, use and abuse of natural resources, pollution, human population issues, and renewable energy. Through the use of case studies, lab activities, field studies, field trips and computer interactives, students will identify components of a balanced ecosystem, analyze environmental problems that disrupt the balance, and discuss practical strategies for moving toward a more sustainable future. Students will be assessed through homework assignments, tests, group projects, presentations, and a final research project.

Astronomy: A Cosmic Perspective

Humanity’s pursuit of knowledge has, in many ways, been a journey to find our place in the universe. In that sense, the modern field of astronomy can offer insights that are both unique and profound – a cosmic perspective. This course introduces the student to the field of astronomy beginning with the modern view and structure of the universe, including size scales, time scales and the history of the universe. Students will understand naked eye astronomy, Earth’s relationship to the Sun and Moon, orbital mechanics, the planetary science of our solar system, stellar and galactic evolution, dark matter, dark energy, and current research into extra-solar planets and the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Students will use the Mastering Astronomy learning suite for homework assignments and Starry Night planetarium software for lab explorations and inquiries.

Topics in Genetics

The primary commonality between all living things is DNA. As scientific research advances, geneticists enrich our understanding and importance of this molecule and how it can be manipulated. Such understanding is important to making decisions about personal health as well as pursuing careers in various fields, such as genetic counseling, law, finance and beyond. Through problem-based learning exercises, laboratory investigations, readings, discussion, collaboration and debate, students in this course develop a deeper comprehension of DNA and its applications. Students explore current topics in genetics, such as epigenetics, genetic disease, personal genome testing, bioethics, genetic engineering and forensics. Assessments include quizzes, presentations, lab reports and projects.