One reason many families are drawn to Waldorf education is its emphasis on experiential learning, or, as a Waldorf teacher might say, teaching that engages the will. In early grades this is easy to see in lessons that bring the whole class out of their seats in a variety of active exercises. In later years the engagement of the will is more inward, but still essential to learning. A student who observes a hydrogen gas light spectrum describes what she has seen and then, after reflection and discussion, including how this relates to stellar processes, appreciates the power of human thought and imagination in realizing the modern conception of electronic quantum energy transitions.She gains not only knowledge but capacity for reasoning and logical thought. As this project repeats itself students begin to cultivate their own capacities of imagination and to pose their own questions before the teacher does.
Ninth and tenth grade students take four science blocks each year – one for each of the major disciplines of physics, chemistry, life sciences and earth sciences. They hone their observational skills. They practice remembering and describing exactly what they have seen, and in doing this they uncover for themselves fundamental natural laws. A good example is the tenth grade kinematics block in which students derive the laws of motion.
In the junior year, the students move on to aspects of science that go beyond what we can experience with our senses. A true understanding of the forces of electricity and magnetism or the forces at work in the cosmos requires imaginative thinking. Each student must create their own inner picture of an electron, a photon, or of infinity, not arbitrarily, but in agreement with the events occurring in the natural and technological world we live in.
Seniors continue to exercise the imaginative thinking that is the hallmark of creative scientific thought. They are encouraged to bring ideas together from varied sources and experiences. For instance, in Modern Physics, they look at color phenomena from both experimental and historical approaches that compare theories of color, culminating in a discussion of the wave particle duality of quantum physics. A high point of the block is the field trip to Fermilab where students encounter modern technical achievements in leading-edge science. The visit always includes a conversation with a research scientist specializing in particle physics or astrophysics, and the students always have lots of questions and are impressed with the level of discourse.
Math classes follow a similar progression. Daily math classes emphasize strengthening fundamentals, but always encourage flexible and creative thinking. The math blocks allow even more scope for artistry and imagination. For example, the projective geometry block challenges students to imagine mathematical structures that truly only exist in the human imagination yet have complete logical validity. This type of geometry is the basis for the non-Euclidean geometries that have proved so useful in advanced physics and astronomy. We have one of the few high school math curricula that offer this engaging and relevant form of mathematical study.
Rudolf Steiner criticized the “dashboard” or surface knowledge which is all many of us have of the technological complexities of the modern world. He wanted students to understand the “how” and the “why” – not only the “what” of the machines we all depend on. Our high school goes “behind the dashboard” for students in many aspects of technology – and more exposure to technology in the classroom is planned for 2017. Next year there will be a computer programming elective. We will also be adding blocks in computer science that cover basic computer operation, proper internet use, mathematical aspects of computing and the fundamentals of programming.
Freshman photography is both an artistic and a technical challenge. Students work with film photography and learn how a camera works. Similarly, digital publishing for the juniors works with classic design principles and modern computer tools for digital photo editing. It is an excellent complement to the art block in book binding and students come away with a new understanding of how paper and electronic books are created.
Upperclassmen also have the option to pursue more advanced technical courses. Some students choose to take the science elective class which is project based; students are given assistance with the resources they need to complete such projects as building small prototype machines. Recent students have created 3-D printers, quadcopters and computers. Other students choose the technical arts elective in which modern digital tools are used to render two-dimensional forms artistically. Students have also taken advantage of the senior project to further scientific and technical areas of interest. A student recently set up an internship with Northwestern University in which he used state-of-the-art electron microscopes to study atomic-level properties of metals.
Another exciting development in our technology program has been the popular new robotics club. A group of 12 students has been working hard under the direction of Mr. Conis to build a robot. They are learning many facets of hardware construction and the complexities of computer program – and testing their ideas in the real world. They were thrilled to place fourth (out of 12) in their first competition, and more meets are planned.
Chicago Waldorf High School students have the foundation to succeed in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Our graduates have gone on to study medicine, physics, engineering and other STEM fields. They are valued not only for their technical capacities, but also for their creativity and sense of aesthetics. In fact a new acronym, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art+Design, Math) is gaining popularity as people come to realize the importance of intuition and flexible thinking. Our rich and varied arts program complements students’ work in the scientific and technical studies, helping them to confidently consider a variety of directions after graduation.
Special thanks to:
Dr. Kotz who wrote this article (Physics Faculty)
Photographs by Dean Conis (Robotics Club Faculty Advisor), Madeline Fex (Marketing Director), Jason Greenberg (Communications Director)