The study of science at Putney revives, instills and encourages curiosity about the natural world by equipping students with the habits of mind needed to ask and answer questions using the scientific method. Courses introduce fundamental biological, chemical and physical principles through active inquiry, experimentation, direct instruction and exercises in problem solving. Advanced tutorials in the sciences are available and common. Upon graduation, students will have developed an understanding of essential methods and content sufficient for lifelong learning, responsible citizenship and for further study of science at the university level.

Ninth Grade Integrated Course Requirement

Ninth grade students are required to take Humans in the Natural World for three credits, which integrates English, Social Science, and Natural Science.
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Chemistry and Microbiology

1 credit

Chemistry is everywhere - in what we eat, in what we breathe, in how we live, in what we are. Using an understanding of the essentials of chemistry—atomic structure, electronegativity, chemical bonding, intermolecular forces and reactivity—students will explore fundamental biochemical pathways and cellular processes. We will integrate principles of chemistry and biology to understand how cells communicate and replicate, enabling a variety of organisms to maintain a stable internal environment in the face of changing external conditions. We will also explore how organisms relay information from generation to generation and how these pathways can be disrupted. Students will develop laboratory skills as well as the ability to design and implement a protocol to answer a discrete biochemical question. Students will become proficient in gathering, organizing, describing, and analyzing data. We will also consider emerging technologies and how they are transforming our collective capacity to understand and manipulate the world on a biochemical level.


1 credit

Students look at familiar phenomena from the perspective of an experimental scientist. Reasoning is developed through an emphasis on deriving equations to make predictions and then designing experiments to test those predictions. The skills of computation and estimation are developed throughout the course. We begin by studying kinematics, Newton’s Laws of Motion, momentum, energy, rotational motion, and planetary systems. The second part of the course concentrates on electricity and magnetism. The course ends with a brief survey of topics in modern physics. While this class is best taken in conjunction with Precalculus or Calculus, two years of Algebra is a prerequisite.

Advanced Chemistry: Climate Change Topics

.5 credit

Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue of our time. This course is designed to advance student knowledge and understanding in chemistry by exploring some of the fundamental science behind climate change processes and mitigation strategies. At the end of this course, students will understand gas laws, including greenhouse gas structure and behavior. They will know how isotopes are used to determine our climate history. Students will develop a working knowledge of acid and base chemistry and be able to model acidification of our ocean’s ecosystems. Finally, students will be able to demonstrate and describe energy flow and determine whether fuel cells and biodiesel are effective technologies to combat climate change. Based on research and understanding of different oils, students will design and fabricate their own fuel. This course will be fast-paced, quantitative, and will draw heavily on the foundational understanding developed in previous coursework. Prerequisite: Chemistry and Microbiology

Anatomy and Physiology 1

.5 credit

Together, anatomy and physiology provide us with an intimate understanding of the form and function of the body’s tissues and organs. Throughout this course, we will focus on identifying structures and discovering how their form enables the human body to accomplish remarkable tasks every second of every day. After developing a working knowledge of cellular function, histology, and homeostasis, students will explore three systems of human anatomy and physiology: skeletal, muscular, and cardiovascular. In each section, students will learn relevant anatomical terms, perform laboratory dissections (on animal parts), and design physiological tests to observe processes in action. Case studies will be used to provide context for what happens when systems fail (i.e. disease and injury). Prerequisite: Chemistry and Microbiology

Anatomy and Physiology 2

.5 credit

The second term of anatomy and physiology builds on the foundational knowledge gathered in the first term. Students will collectively select three or four systems to investigate; possible options include nervous, endocrine, respiratory, immune, digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. For each system of study, students will learn critical anatomical terms, design and implement physiological tests, and employ computer simulations. Clinical scenarios will be used to to refine and expand our understanding. Prerequisite: Anatomy and Physiology I

Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology

.5 credit

This biology elective will give students an introduction to community ecology and how ecosystems give rise to biodiversity. We will examine how our local ecosystems are structured, disturbed, and change over time. We will observe special habitats that enhance biodiversity and how we can protect these. We will also examine threats to ecosystem integrity and how we can prevent, mitigate, or reverse them. Class time will include short lectures, lots of discussion, habitat explorations, field labs, participation in research and monitoring activities underway on campus and in our region, meetings with professionals working in the field, and presentation of fieldwork. Emphasis will be placed on field methods. Humans in the Natural World and Chemistry and Microbiology or permission of the instructor. 

Bioethics in Modern Science

.5 credit

This course is a science seminar in which students will explore, navigate and create systematic frameworks for evaluating ethics in research science. Students will discuss controversial issues that may include human subjects, organism patents, and stem cell research. Using a case study approach, students will practice critical science writing and argumentation in the context of challenging, modern issues, while developing evaluative criteria for scientific research subjects and projects. Prerequisite: Chemistry and Microbiology

Complex Systems: Agroecology

.5 credit

This biology course will use The Putney School and other local farms to explore the sustainability (ecological, economic, and social) of these agricultural systems. We will study the history of farming in our area, investigate how past and current practices affect the land and economy, and familiarize ourselves with soil and plant ecology and how nutrient cycles determine how and what we can grow. Readings will consist of excerpts from a variety of scientific texts, trade publications, scientific journals, newspapers, and agricultural texts and histories. We will use farm visits to practice analyzing the sustainability of farm systems. While the focus will be on dairy farming, we will also work with local vegetable farmers, orchardists, and permaculturists. Final projects will provide the opportunity to delve into sustainability issues with respect to agriculture, such as climate change, organics, GMOs, rotational grazing, permaculture, water conservation, pest management, etc. Prerequisites: Humans in the Natural World and Chemistry and Microbiology or permission of the instructor.

Conceptual Physics

.5 credits

This is an experiential survey of basic physics concepts. Students will design and perform experiments exploring major concepts in physics while developing writing, mathematical description and data handling skills. This course has no prerequisites and is intended for any student wanting a basic physics experience and also serves as an early introduction to physics for younger students.

Independent Topics in Science

.5 credit

This course is designed to give highly motivated and independent students the opportunity to pursue scientific or technological questions of their own design, or for students to take on a challenge such as entry in a science contest. One component of the course will be continuous communication and collaboration with others in the class, regardless of their area of study. To qualify for enrollment, students submit a description of their proposed study which must then be approved by the science department. Students considering this course are expected to discuss their eligibility with the instructor before submitting a proposal. Proposals which overlap significantly with courses currently being offered will not be considered. Offered in Winter & Spring. This course is open to students at any grade level. There are no prerequisites.

Introduction to Astronomy

.5 credit

It hardly seems reasonable to detect an object that by its very nature is unobservable, or to claim knowledge of the composition of stars with any scientific certainty. Yet astronomers have reached many such conclusions, and we will follow their chain of reasoning. Topics to be discussed are planetary motion, stars and their life cycles, galaxies, and cosmology. We will use our observatory to view, image, measure, and make inferences about the objects we find. Over time, we will reconcile observations made at night with knowledge developed in the classroom. By the end of the course, students will know their way around the sky, have a sense of the scale of our universe, how it develops over time and the nature of the objects in it. A chemistry background is preferred. Completion or concurrent enrollment in Algebra 2 or above is required.

Molecular Biology and Genetics

.5 credit

This investigative course is an introduction to Molecular Biology and Genetics. Through scientific inquiry and collaboration students will be able to delve deeply into the concepts that lay the foundation for modern molecular biology and genetics, while practicing techniques used in labs around the world. Content includes Genetics, Probability of Inheritance, Central Dogma of Molecular biology, and Genetic Engineering. Labs build skills and knowledge through a collaborative, problem-solving approach; students will practice the fundamental lab work underlying historical and recent discoveries in the field of molecular biology and genetics. Students will consider the power and limitations of the field, and the social implications of the research. Prerequisite: Chemistry and Microbiology

Physiological Ecology

.5 credit

This elective will use the 320 acres of Putney School’s forests to understand the distribution, adaptations and interconnections of organisms in a New England wooded ecosystem. In addition to learning about plant physiology, students will hone field observation skills through careful identification of the most common plant and tree species living in our forests, use field data to differentiate and delineate forest types, and investigate our area’s geologic history, soils, natural and human disturbance histories, and current stressors (climate change, acid rain, pests, etc.). Through first-hand field work and readings, students will discuss and explore concepts like natural resource management, sustainable forestry, and other ecological and forestry principles. Prerequisites: Humans in the Natural World and Chemistry and Microbiology or permission of the instructor.

Generally offered in other years

Complex Systems: The Built Environment

.5 credits

This elective will use The Putney School campus as a laboratory to learn about sustainable building systems and practices. Students will come away with a knowledge of how certain cycles impact life on our planet, how we can intentionally and inadvertently change these cycles, and what we can do to live more sustainably. We will examine geopolitical, economic, and ecological forces driving our concern about sustainability, especially with regards to energy. We will investigate the ways we use energy at school for food, fuel, and manufactured products, calculate how this contributes to our carbon footprint, discuss alternative methods for meeting our energy needs, and debate how science, politics, and economics affect our ability to make sustainable decisions. Main text: Tom Wessels’ Myth of Progress.