How Exeter nurtures the innovators of the future

From the lab to the table, the Academy offers wide-ranging science opportunities.

Sarah Pruitt '95
February 9, 2022
Phelps Science Center

Sunlight streams through a wall of windows into a second-floor classroom in Phelps Science Center, illuminating the trappings of a well-equipped biology lab — including three octagonal lab tables with four stools each, a blond wood Harkness table and a taxidermied bear head resting on a countertop, mouth agape.

 It’s barely a week before Thanksgiving break and Lina Huang ’22 and the other students in Integrated Studies 419: Bioethics assemble for one of their last classes of the fall term. They aren’t using the lab tables, where several weeks ago they were manipulating the genes of different bacteria using CRISPR-Cas9, the powerful technology that has sparked ongoing debate over the morality of editing human genomes. Instead, two classmates are delivering a final presentation on medical paternalism and whether doctors are justified in withholding information about the risk of stillbirth from their pregnant patients.

Among those listening in are Religion Instructor Austin Washington and Science Instructor Michele Chapman. The pair are co-teaching this interdisciplinary course investigating gene editing, cloning and stem cell research, as well as medical technologies ranging from in vitro fertilization to organ donation and vaccination, from a host of perspectives. “The students can take the course for either science or religion credit based on their needs or their interests,” Chapman explains. “It’s been really successful.”

Lina Huang '22 

Huang, who hadn’t done any lab experiments before coming to Exeter as a prep, finds classes that cross disciplines and combine hands-on lab work with Harkness discussion most thrilling. “People come into science class with a bunch of questions about how our course material applies to things they’ve seen, things they’ve read or experiences they’ve had,” Huang says. “In Biology 520, when we covered the circulatory system, we not only learned how blood travels through the body, but we also explored, in a lab, how blood pressure varies with changes in posture and activity.”

Like an ever-growing number of Exeter students, Huang is taking full advantage of the school’s wide-ranging science offerings, including advanced courses in biology — her primary area of interest — as well as physics, chemistry and computer science. Her experience, and that of many other Exonians learning science today, is a direct result of the decision made more than two decades ago to create a new, more open science facility that would fully incorporate the Harkness method into science learning for the first time.

The history of Harkness science

When Stanford N. Phelps ’52 donated $15 million in 1999 for the construction of a new science building, he imagined expanding the realm of possibility not just for the Academy and its students, but also for the world. “I wanted to make the science building a reality because I believe the nation will benefit from the future contributions of Exeter students who study within its walls,” he said at the dedication ceremony for the Phelps Science Center in October 2001.

That opening ceremony was the culmination of a process that began with a meeting Exeter’s science faculty had with the Trustees around 1994. “We intentionally brought them into the Thompson Science Building and said, here’s where we’re finding this building to be inadequate,” says Scott Saltman, science instructor and Exeter’s director of studies. “The response that we got from them was — you’re absolutely right.”

Thompson had opened in the fall of 1931, just shy of a year after Edward Harkness made the gift of $5.8 million that would change the school’s pedagogy forever. As a consequence of timing, science learning was largely left out of the Harkness revolution, as there was no accommodation for the now-famous oval tables in the building’s classrooms.

According to Saltman, adding Harkness tables to the new science center was actually one of the last decisions made during its design. By the 1990s, most classrooms in Thompson featured movable chair-desks arranged in a U-shaped configuration, in addition to the lab bench and teacher’s bench. At first, Saltman and his colleagues envisioned using similar setups in the new building, but after experimenting in a mock-up classroom with a special reconfigurable version of a Harkness table, they found they never moved the pieces out of the oval shape. “We were experiencing in real time how taking the teacher out of the center and putting people on more of an equal footing does to the way a group interacts with each other,” Saltman says. “When we moved an established class into that room, they immediately interacted in different ways.”

By conscious and collaborative design, the Phelps Science Center is a building that not only fully incorporates Harkness, but reflects the dynamic, expansive nature of modern science itself. In addition to 22 classroom-labs, each with its own Harkness table and laboratory space, there are four common labs for biology, chemistry and physics, as well as a flexible multi-science lab. The common labs are very visible spaces, with front walls completely made of glass, while angled windows in the classrooms strategically reveal lab work while keeping class discussions a bit more concealed. “It’s modern, beautiful and practical,” says Albert Léger, chair of the Science Department, of the building. “We have the best of both worlds — we can discover together in a more informal, tactile way at the lab bench, and then come back together at the Harkness table and talk about what we saw and our next steps.”

Science learning at Exeter today

Like Huang, Neil Chowdhury ’22 was immediately captivated by the specific way he was learning science at Exeter. “Being able to do a lab in chemistry and then go straight to the table and talk about how it worked and everything — that is a cool experience,” he says.

Chowdhury has taken a wide array of science courses, including organic chemistry, modern physics and astronomy. He is also co-head of three science-related clubs: including the Chemistry Club, Science Bowl (a buzzer-based competition) and the Physics Club. The latter group won the 14th U.S. Association for Young Physicists Tournament in 2021, besting 10 rival teams by tackling problems like how a lava lamp works and the physics of terrestrial and lunar impact craters.

Neil Chowdhury '22

Along with many other Exeter students, Chowdhury and his fellow Physics Club members take advantage of the Design Lab, a well-outfitted maker space located in the physics wing of the Phelps Science Center. Featuring a 3D printer, laser cutter and other high-tech tools, the lab was the result of student demand for a more informal workshop space to build, create and learn. “People are always in there trying to build their own electric skateboards and scooters,” Chowdhury says.

“It’s a different place than the rest of the building,” Léger says of the Design Lab, which was added more than a decade after the Science Center opened. “There’s room for play in science — it doesn’t have to be tedious.”

For Saltman, the Design Lab is a perfect example of the way the Science Center and the curriculum has been able to grow and change along with technology and science itself. “Things we couldn’t necessarily have envisioned happening in 2001, we can do the configuring to make it happen,” he says. “A lot of that is due to the flexibility of the common lab spaces, where we can move things around to make that work.”

As flexible as the building may be, students studying science at Exeter aren’t confined within the walls of Phelps. Over the years, the curriculum has grown to include an array of field courses, including ornithology, earth science, ecology and animal behavior. It’s not uncommon, Léger says, to see one of the Academy’s familiar Red Dragon vans heading out of Phelps at 7:30 a.m. for a field trip.

In her marine biology class last year, Huang took a trip to a mud flat, where she dug for Nemertea worms and collected organisms on a rainy, cold day in January. “It felt really great to still be pursuing science even in this extreme weather,” she says. “When we got back, we looked at the organisms under a microscope and categorized them, then went through the process of scientific inquiry to see how they were adapted to the environment of the mud flat.”

Above all, Chowdhury and Huang appreciate the openness and collaborative spirit of learning science at Exeter. Huang remembers working with her physics classmates to figure out how to launch a ball into a cup as their final project of the course. “Finals week is usually associated with a lot of stress and tests,” Huang says. “But here we could bounce ideas off of friends and enjoy comparing our approaches to physics.”

Chowdhury describes the third-floor lounge in Phelps, with its high ceilings, comfy chairs and sweeping view of campus, as an ideal place for relaxing, socializing — and doing science. For the Robotics Club, he and other members recently set up a large playing field for their robots there. “I’m working on programming the robot to accomplish all the game objectives,” he says. “I think we’re getting a dedicated lab space soon, but for now the lounge is the only place where that stuff fits.”

Teaching the scientists of tomorrow

Over the past decade, the Science Department has seen a steady increase in the number of students enrolled in its courses, as well as an increasing number of those choosing to take advanced science courses and electives. In 2021, the annual enrollment in science classes totaled 3,045, including 427 enrollments in 500-level classes or higher. “We’ve adjusted our curriculum in ways that support the students better,” Saltman says.

Faculty are also meeting student demand for opportunities to engage in college-level research. “Our students have done research at their old school, or over the summer, and they want to continue,” Léger says.

After taking an earlier genetics course at Exeter, Leena Hamad ’17, for example, applied and was selected for Biology 670, a research course that delves into the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Initiated in 2012 as part of “StanEx,” a collaboration between Dr. Seung Kim ’81, professor of developmental biology and of medicine at Stanford, and Science Instructors Townley Chisholm and Anne Rankin, the course teaches Exeter students how to genetically modify fruit flies and breed their own new fruit fly lines.

Science is a lot more than learning the facts — it’s something that’s constantly developing and evolving.”
Leena Hamad '17

“It is kind of amazing to me that we were able to get our hands on facilities for microscopy and all these technologies,” Hamad says. “We were 16- and 17-year-olds just dabbling with research, and most of us hadn’t really used any of the tools before.” She recalls the fruit fly course as a lot of independent work, independent thinking and troubleshooting — all skills that have proved invaluable in her college and professional experience.

“In my later lab work, it was routine practice to isolate DNA from things, and it all started at Exeter.”

Hamad says she has tried to explain the experience of learning science via the Harkness method to others who haven’t shared it. “They’re confused, because it seems like science is something that’s instructed to you,” she says. “But science is a lot more than learning the facts — it’s something that’s constantly developing and evolving, and you have to learn how to ask questions about the things you’re being taught and delve deeper. In a real-life lab setting, that’s what it’s all about.”

She credits her Exeter experience with showing her the value of a multifaceted approach to learning, including seeing the deeper connections between different subjects and disciplines. While at Harvard, Hamad concentrated in molecular and cellular biology, but minored in political science and earned a certificate in Arabic. Now pursuing her M.Phil. degree in health, medicine and society at Cambridge University, she’s diving deeper into subjects such as philosophy, ethics, and the history of science and medicine, and plans to enroll in a combined M.D./Ph.D. program to become a physician-scientist.

Looking ahead

The future of science at Exeter, Léger says, is about continuing to break down barriers and weave together different disciplines. “Can somebody learn about an organ in biology, write a code for its function in computer science, build it in the Design Lab and then test it in physics?” he asks. “Modern science is more and more interdisciplinary.”

Chair of the Department of Science Albert Léger

That’s certainly true for this fall’s Bioethics class and Huang’s experience integrating ideas from theology, history, philosophy and law with modern medicine and biological research. Huang welcomes such academic opportunities to make connections, especially during the unprecedented challenges of the past two years. “The pandemic emphasized how science touches so many parts of our daily lives,” she says. “It’s so important to gain a foundation in these scientific principles so that when we approach topics like vaccines, or masking, we do so with an informed understanding of how it all works.”

When it comes to educating the scientists of tomorrow, Léger is prepared to dream big. “We’re always thinking, how can we meet the students where they are?” he says. “In the science building, we can do just about anything we put our minds to.”

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.