College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Through Gr. 9 Physics, Finding and Forging Connections Between Science and Social Justice

Listen as students reflect on the recent Gr. 9 physics project, what they took from it, and why they think it's critical to make cross-disciplinary, real-world connections like this. 

Opportunities often present themselves in the most unusual of circumstances. In ninth-grade physics, the coalescence of the pandemic, the DEI&B Roadmap, and the launch of Holton’s schoolwide Learn Well, Live Well, Lead Well (LW3) Goals & Competencies drove teachers Dr. Hannah Krug and Patty Carver to re-examine summative assessments and develop new ways to measure student learning. Starting with the LW3 Goals & Competencies as the learning objectives for their students, they worked backwards to design a new project for the end of the waves unit.

In the past, students were asked to explore and explain an everyday application of waves such as echolocation, ultrasound in medicine, or how fiber optics work. This fall, they were asked to do the same but to take it one step further by researching and discussing a social justice question related to their chosen topic. For example, if a student chose to explore how ultrasound is used in medicine, she also investigated how a woman’s race impacted the quality of her prenatal and maternal care. Likewise, if a student researched how fiber optic cables work in data communication, she then delved into how a student’s socioeconomic class impacted their ability to learn during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Charlotte Klein ’24 put it, “Without the LW3 Goals, this would have been just another physics project. But it was empowering to incorporate the LW3 Goals as we tried to come up with solutions as a team of ninth graders on very controversial topics.”

Academic Dean Rachel Herlein recently moderated a student panel to hear firsthand how students experienced this project and she noted two common themes she heard: they were able to more fully see and appreciate new perspectives and to have some of their own assumptions debunked. When asked what she learned from this project, Callie Ervin ’24 shared her surprise discovery that there were so many disparities between the quality of medical care for African American versus white women right here in Montgomery County. Other students shared similar discoveries, and it also became apparent to students that social justice issues are not isolated from one another. Zoe Muhlner ’24 explained that she found that sexism and racism played just as large a role in the quality of medical care as individual income level.

The most poignant part of the discussion came when students were asked how important it is for Holton teachers to incorporate social justice questions throughout the curriculum. Avery Rudge ’24 spoke up first and offered that learning about social justice topics in all of their classes would help students understand how identity, and thus racism and sexism, are not isolated in just one aspect of someone’s life but instead are woven throughout. Many students agreed with this sentiment, and Leilani Clark ’24 added how she appreciated being given the opportunity to interact with the LW3 Goals and having the freedom to demonstrate her understanding of the learning objectives in her own way. This individualization motivated many students to go more in-depth in their research, and they enjoyed using their own voices and expressing their own thoughts and opinions.

Ella Moore ’24 said this project helped her understand the importance of empathy and being able to view other perspectives on certain topics. She feels this is an important life skill, and her classmates agreed. There was a general consensus on the need for students to explore their own privilege and bias in order to be able to make a difference and have a positive impact during their lives.

Krug summed up the experience well by stating, “The results were phenomenal—not only did they demonstrate their physics knowledge with aplomb, but they also passionately argued against injustice and came up with creative ways to solve these societal problems. It was clear how ready and willing the students are to tackle these global issues.”

Moving forward, Krug and Carver plan on having a project based on the LW3 Goals at the end of every unit in physics in lieu of the traditional tests. It should be noted that the core components of the ninth-grade physics courses—problem solving and laboratory investigations—remain firmly intact. It is simply that now students are being given the opportunity to relate physics to other aspects of their lives and to explore the complexities of our society through the lens of social justice.

View samples of the Gr. 9 physics projects here and here. 

Gr. 9 Physics Project 12.20