Upper School Courses

Academic Departments


Science is a process of questioning nature. Scientist and students of science make observations, analyze data, build theories and test hypotheses. The entire curriculum focuses on creating a healthy, skeptical attitude and fostering the joy of discovery. A wide selection of advanced electives provides students with the opportunity to gain firsthand experience with the many varied disciplines that exist under the title of science. Our goal is not to create future scientists, but to create an atmosphere of inquiry and excitement in our students about this wonderful and still mysterious universe in which we live.
In order to give students a basic understanding of science, three years of science are required: Biology 1, Chemistry 1 and Physics 1. These courses stress the experimental nature of each discipline and are taught using the guided-inquiry method.
Advanced science electives include second-year courses in biology, chemistry and physics, as well as courses in engineering, environmental science, robotics-electronics, geology, biomedical technology, projects in science and technology, and astrophysics. Students who wish to pursue a topic not covered by the offered courses can apply for independent study.
Biology 1 and Chemistry 1 must be completed before enrolling in any of the advanced science electives. However, Physics 1 can be taken concurrently with certain advanced electives.
  • Biology I

    This course presents an introduction to unifying principles in biology. These principles are taught using a guided-inquiry approach with heavy emphasis on laboratory experiments and other hands-on activities. Topics covered include biomolecules, cell structure and processes, genetics (including patterns of inheritance), protein synthesis and biotechnology, evolution, human anatomy, biodiversity, classification of plants and animals, and climate change (including its causes and potential effects). Students are expected to problem-solve in the lab, during discussions and through individualized research. They also participate in plant studies and habitat restoration on school land. Students develop a solid understanding of the structure and function of living cells, energy flow in living systems, heredity and inheritance patterns, mechanisms of growth, reproduction and development, evolution and the mechanisms driving evolution, biodiversity, ecological footprint and anthropogenic pressures, basic applications of biotechnology, and human anatomy. They also gain skills that will help them work effectively with lab partners; hypothesize, design, analyze and report findings of experiments; research, interpret and report on scientific literature; and deliver organized and thoughtful oral presentations.

    1 credit
  • Chemistry I

    Chemistry is an experimental science and, as such, so is this course. Using a guided-inquiry approach, students continually experiment and seek answers to questions based on chemical phenomena. Student data are used in post-laboratory discussions to develop the fundamental concepts of chemistry and demonstrate how these concepts link together. Dimensional analysis, based on chemical stoichiometry, is explored throughout the course. As the year progresses, students also study balancing equations, types of chemical reactions, gas laws, solution chemistry, thermochemistry, kinetics, equilibrium and acid base reactions. The structure of the atom, bonding, molecular structures and the purpose of the periodic chart are investigated in depth. Students develop an understanding of the relationship of chemistry to everyday life and the impact of chemical reactions in the environment. Safety is emphasized in the lab as students become familiar with performing experiments on a regular basis.

    Prerequisite: Biology I.
    1 credit
  • Physics I

    Physics I gives students the opportunity to discover many of the natural laws that govern the behavior of our universe. The course uses a guided-inquiry approach that enables students to observe phenomena and experiment in a laboratory setting. Students identify major physical principles through active investigations and discussions. Introductions to classical Newtonian mechanics, waves, sound, optics, electrostatics and circuits provide students with an exciting, engaging and broad background in the discipline. The emphasis of this course is equally divided between developing a conceptual understanding of the major topics of physics and developing problem-solving skills in those topic areas. By the end of this course, students should have a deeper understanding of the basic laws and larger concepts that govern the universe and world we live in.

    Prerequisites: Biology I and Chemistry I. Students may qualify to take Chemistry I concurrently with Physics I if they earned a V- or higher in Biology I and are concurrently enrolled in Algebra 2. 
    1 credit
  • Adv Biology II

    Advanced Biology II investigates the basic principles of biology in greater depth and breadth than in the first-year course. The course explores major themes such as evolution, unity and diversity of living organisms, structure and function, homeostasis, reproduction, and genetics. Inquiry is paramount, both in the laboratory and in class discussions. Observation, experiments, models and videos are used to visualize processes. Students also investigate extraction of DNA, CRISPR experiments and gel electrophoresis analysis, along with the dissection of animals and the examination of the processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. During dissection, students conduct a comparative study of the various organic systems to determine how each overcomes the challenges in their environments from an evolutionary perspective. Connections are made throughout the course to the individual lives of the students by incorporating current events into our discussions. Students also are engaged in studying the flora and fauna on our campus. Visits to view thoracic surgery at a local hospital and to a nearby veterinary clinic provide not only interesting experiences, but also a glimpse at possible careers relating to biology. Students are encouraged throughout the year to find their voice during class and solve problems using the logic and reason of science.

    Prerequisites: 11th or 12th graders who have successfully completed Biology I, Chemistry I and Physics I; a grade of V in Biology I. Physics I may be taken concurrently. 
    1 credit
  • Adv Chemistry II

    Advanced Chemistry II is an elective course designed to provide an in-depth study of concepts learned in Chemistry I. The course is taught as a first-year college-level course and challenges students to learn the material at the pace of a college course. Topics of study range from a review of basic chemical principles to comprehensive units on electrochemistry, thermodynamics, gas laws, molecular structures, equilibrium, acid-base reactions and nuclear chemistry. An introduction to organic chemistry also is included. There is an intensive laboratory component to the course. Students acquire knowledge of equipment, lab safety and proper lab procedures so that they are able to perform experiments with confidence and precision. Some self-guided procedures are included in the lab component. The course will cover most of the topics found on the Chemistry SAT II subject test and the Chemistry AP test, but extra preparation outside of class is definitely required and recommended.

    Prerequisites: Biology I and Chemistry I and have either completed Physics I or are taking it concurrently; a  grade of V in Chemistry I. 
    1 credit
  • Adv Physics II

    Advanced Physics II is designed to allow advanced science students the opportunity to investigate how we know what we do about the universe around us through experimentation and detailed analysis of the results. How did we figure out gravity, quantum theory, special and general relativity, nuclear physics, the Standard Model of Matter, motion in all its various forms, the nature of light, electricity (both static and current), and electromagnetism? How do all of these hint at a possible grand unification of all the aspects of nature as defined by physics? The course emphasizes not what we know, but rather how we know it. This involves the derivation, using experimental data, of many of the most important equations and concepts of modern physics. Rocket science, which contains many fundamental physics principles, will also be investigated in depth. Rocket construction, engine testing and aerodynamics stability, and flight dynamics are included in this study. Numerous readings from Einstein, Feynman and other famous scientific authors help provide a fuller and more complete view of this subject. Through a number of readings from many different sources, students also investigate human and historical perspectives that affect the physics done in class and the interpretations of observations. By learning that we know very little about some of the major factors in physics, such as energy, electricity and gravity, students are able to see how codifying nature is different from a true understanding of nature. Advanced Physics II is not necessarily used to prepare students for a college physics course, but more importantly to give them a clear and broader picture of the nature of physics.

    Prerequisites: 11th and 12th graders who have completed Biology I, Chemistry I and Physics I; a grade of V in Physics I. Concurrent enrollment in Precalculus or Calculus is helpful, but not required. 
    1 credit
  • Environmental Science

    Environmental Science provides students with the opportunity to expand their knowledge acquired in their first-year science courses that dealt directly with the environment and environmental issues. Students develop the skills to pose questions and gain a better understanding of the complex and interrelated systems in the world around them. This course focuses on a range of scientific topics, including earth systems, land and water use, human population, terrestrial/aquatic and atmospheric pollution, ecosystem dynamics, biodiversity, and energy resources and consumption. The science of climate change and sustainability is studied throughout the year, as it relates to each specific topic. Students participate in discussions, laboratory and field work, and attend various field trips throughout the year. One major field trip goes to the Texas coast, where students gain hands-on experience in marine science by collecting and studying live specimens, investigating the geology of barrier islands, and conducting a beach clean-up. Throughout the course, students develop the ability to analyze the science presented to the general public through the study of current events. Students also develop environmental science lab skills, such as water quality testing and species diversity analysis. Students should be able to take what they have learned in the course and apply it to their daily lives, making them knowledgeable citizens within their communities.

    Prerequisites: Biology I, Chemistry I, and Physics I. Physics I may be taken concurrently. 
    1 credit
  • Principles of Engineering

    Principles of Engineering exposes students to a wide range of engineering fields and skills through a series of intensive hands-on projects. The fields of engineering addressed include, but are not limited to, mechanical, civil, structural, earthquake, environmental, marine, chemical and biomechanical. Skills learned include 3D design and printing, coding and programming, truss analysis, soldering and circuits, gearing, and use of CNC routers. Field trips and guest speakers add to students’ depth of understanding of engineering fields. The course is taught entirely as a project-based course; students are evaluated primarily through project performance and execution, technical reports, presentations, applied homework, and portfolios. The course is designed to help students develop a clear understanding of the engineering design process, the types of disciplines within engineering, how to approach and develop solutions to design challenges, how to write design proposals and technical reports, and how to concisely and effectively convey their work in front of an audience.

    Prerequisites: 11th and 12th graders who have completed Biology I, Chemistry I, and Physics I. Physics I can be taken concurrently. 
    1 credit
  • Electronics and Robotics

    This lab-based course introduces students to electronics and robotics through the lenses of science, engineering, art, programming and design. Beginning with a study of circuits and the electrical components that comprise them, students build circuits that contain resistors, batteries, diodes, light-emitting diodes, capacitors, inductors, relays, fuses, transistors and chips. Labs are augmented by videos, readings and lectures that explain how these components function and are made. For example, students learn about the efficacy of different chemicals in batteries as well as how silicon doping works in a transistor. The class looks at different production techniques, such as through hole and surface mount circuit boards. Students also learn math-based theory, including how to calculate the time constant in an RC circuit. Once students have learned how to count in binary, add in binary, manipulate binary data with logical functions and generate truth tables, they build full adder circuits with relays. In conjunction with this exercise, chips are introduced as a substitute for the mechanical adder. The class looks at the rapid development of transistors, Moore’s Law and how this has affected society. A discussion of basic logic chips ultimately leads to microcontroller chips and opens the door for students to learn physical computing in the context of robotics. Using microcontroller boards, students use C++ to manipulate LEDs, LCD, motors and sensors. These skills allow them to embark on a robotic toy deconstruction project that includes rebuilding these toys with the students’ own microcontrollers, sensors and outputs. After tackling a unit on robot ethics, students engage in a final project in which they build a large-scale robot such as a Mars rover.

    Prerequisites: 11th and 12th graders who have completed Biology I and Chemistry I, and Physics I. Physics I may be taken concurrently. 
    1 credit
  • Projects in Science and Tech

    This project-based course guides students through the planning, design, execution and publication of their own science-oriented research projects or technological applications. Projects often fall into, but are not limited to, one of three categories: building an invention for use within a science or technological construct; building one’s own research instrument and conducting research with it; and using extant instrumentation to conduct a long-term data-driven research project. After participating in ideation sessions with the teacher, students pick a project. Using time-based sprints, students work with the teacher to identify tasks and execute those tasks using project management software. Students acquire skills specific to their project, and these often include the use of microcontrollers, sensors, IOT data acquisition, data display, physical construction (e.g., drills and saws), 3D printing, laser cutting, and some level of coding.

    Prerequisite: Students must apply to take this course. Preference is given to students who have taken Electronics and Robotics. 
    1 credit
  • Geology

    Geology is an advanced-level science elective that is the equivalent of two college-level geology courses, physical and historical geology. Students begin with an intensive investigation of the basic processes and materials of the earth using the Grand Canyon as an example. Extensive laboratory work is done with mineral and rock identification, both macroscopic and microscopic realms, along with both topographic and geologic map analysis. Heavy emphasis is placed on the origins and aspects of plate tectonic theory as a unifying theme for the earth sciences. The course also covers geologic factors that have affected and will continue to affect humankind, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, the interior of the earth, ice ages and the development of our present landscapes. The evolution of the earth and life on it constitutes the second major part of this course. Identification of fossils and deciphering of past environment from the rock record allow students to gain firsthand experience with interpreting earth. All of the skills gained from these experiences are then used to complete a geologic map and geologic history of a fictitious place called Ortonia County. Detailed field notes, rock, mineral and fossil specimens are used along with topographic profiles and geologic cross sections to aid students’ production of a geologic history of Ortonia County. Historical vignettes of a famous geologist are also investigated along with several examples of how geologic events have affected the development of civilization. Research articles from magazines will provide students with the most current discoveries and ideas. Many chapters from Hans Cloos’ classic work, Conversations with the Earth, add a personal touch to the passion people have for this wonderful planet that we live on. In addition, students conduct several lapidary projects that require them to use various saws and grinders to create necklaces and bolo ties.

    Prerequisites: 11th and 12th graders who have completed Biology I, Chemistry I, and Physics I. Physics I can be taken concurrently. 
    1 credit
  • Astrophysics

    Physics principles related to the detailed study of our universe form the core of this investigation into the astronomical realm. This course addresses the study of stellar evolution, origin of the elements, formation of black holes, galaxies and galaxy clusters, GRBs, and what we currently believe to be the creation and fate of the universe. Students investigate Einstein’s Special and General Relativity theories, which seem to govern the macroscopic universe, by reviewing the many experimental tests and implications of these theories. Derivation of Einstein’s special theory and his energy-mass relationship is also performed. The topic of time constitutes a major part of the course, along with the idea of parallel universes and several other “far out” theories. Several experiments dealing with light and optics form the basis for not only learning about telescopes, but also aiding in the construction of a Newtonian reflector using woodshop tools and mirror sets. The course also covers the historical background of astronomy, development of key ideas, and famous and not-so-famous astronomers. Some planetary work involves drawing orbits using photographic data, calculation of eccentricity, landscape comparison with the earth and the possibilities for life. The course culminates with the investigation of life in the universe and the possibility of contact with other sentient beings. Many readings from various magazines and chapters from Leslie Peltier’s book, “Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Stargazer,” give students a broad exposure to the current discoveries and the excitement of stargazing. Students also become efficient in setting up and using 4-inch and 6-inch telescopes, as well as using the 10-inch refractor in the school’s observatory.

    Prerequisites: 11th and 12th graders who have completed Biology I, Chemistry I, and Physics I. 
    1 credit

Upper School Faculty

  • Photo of Frank Mikan
    Frank Mikan
    Physics Instructor
    Ohio State University - M.S.
    Youngstown State University - B.S.
  • Photo of Ace Furman
    Ace Furman
    Physics Instructor
    University of Texas at Austin - Ph.D.
    Reed College - B.A.
  • Photo of Susan Henry
    Susan Henry
    Chemistry Instructor
    University of Illinois - B.S.
  • Photo of Danielle Horton
    Danielle Horton
    Physics and Engineering Instructor
    Louisiana State University - M.Ed.
    University of Arizona - B.S.
  • Photo of Troy Lanier
    Troy Lanier
    Electronics and Robotics Instructor
    University of Wisconsin - M.A.
    Georgia Institute of Technology - B.S.
  • Photo of Melissa Livsey
    Melissa Livsey
    Chemistry Instructor
    St. John's College - M.A.
    University of Maine at Orono - B.S.
  • Photo of Kathy McCain
    Kathy McCain
    Biology Instructor
    University of Texas at Austin - B.S.
  • Photo of Dean Mohlman
    Dean Mohlman
    Biology Instructor
    St. John’s College - M.A.
    East Texas State University - M.Ed.
    Texas A&M University - B.S.
  • Photo of Lauren Murphy
    Lauren Murphy
    Biology and Environmental Science Instructor
    Eckerd College - B.S.
Address: 6500 St. Stephen's Dr., Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 327-1213