For some 9th graders, Bio1A is the chance to be a scientist.
“Does bad luck cause cancer?” Delaney Hughes ’26 asks as she holds an iPad aloft. She scrolls through a slide show explaining cell division and rates of mutation before answering: “Even for people with bad mutations, there is still a lot they can do to prevent cancer.” Lifestyle, it turns out, trumps luck. A few feet away William Panner ’26 is explaining how hybrid speciation works. Recently, scientists discovered a new species of bird in the Galapagos Islands. It’s a hybrid of a bird from Daphne Major Island and a different bird from Española Island; but this hybrid cannot mate with any bird except other hybrids. Hence, a new species.
The Upper School at Sidwell Friends School is a virtual laboratory in educational innovation, where faculty can use their expertise and experience to teach even the oldest subjects in new ways. Bio1A is a prototypical example. There, 9th grade students read dense articles from scientific journals and learn to comprehend academic texts and the process of science. “What is biological research?” asks Upper School science teacher Cecilia Laguarda. “By picking an article, the students get to see what science looks like and does in the real world.” Once the students have made sense of their article, they each write an abstract for it at a 9th grade level. Ultimately, they describe their efforts through a presentation. It’s not just teaching science; it’s teaching how scientists think and work.
Which is what Kai Schropfer ’26 is doing when he asks, “Did you know bacteria can degrade PET plastics?” Colonies of specific bacteria can consume plastic, rendering it into purely organic matter. It could be a huge breakthrough for the environment—if scientists can get the bacterial colonies to do so at scale. Meanwhile, Isaac Jain ’26 is explaining why humanity should be grateful for the dinosaurs: Their mass extinction led to the conditions in which human life could evolve. And Vir Arora ’26 is revealing why helmets may make brain injuries worse, not better.
“They applied what they have already learned in class to new material and learned new things, too,” says Laguarda. Throughout the class, students also see real lab work and hear from scientists. What’s more: “They all worked really hard.”
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