The methods of science provide an ideal vehicle of learning for the
inquisitive students at St. John’s. In laboratory sessions, students
read original works of scientists such as Newton, Lavoisier, and
Mendel, discuss their writings, and recreate their experiments. Over
the course of three years, they pursue some of the most fundamental
questions of physics, biology, and chemistry—not to cover these
disciplines exhaustively, but to observe the interplay within each
of hypothesis, theory, and fact: to grasp the mechanism of science
itself. In doing so, students seek an understanding of the vast,
exacting, human endeavor of science, which, in its efforts to explain
nature, has done so much to shape the world in which we live.
How do students acquire this understanding? It is not always
easy, especially in freshman year, in part because so much “knowl-
edge” is taken for granted. In high school, students are not always
challenged to question their preconceptions; at St. John’s, they
question at every turn. They learn to slow down and observe as if
they were the first to encounter each phenomenon. What is a tree?
Students begin by going outside and drawing one. How does blood
circulate? They dissect the heart and lungs of a sheep, attempting to
suspend their knowledge of a “circulatory system”—or examining
that knowledge with such questions as “What is a system?” Often,
these questions lead to bigger ones: “Can we gain understanding by
dissecting something that was once alive, and is it right to do so?”
What is the difference between being alive and not being alive?”
a liberal art?
Howdo students conduct centuries-old experiments?
St. John’s makes its own scientific equipment, enabling students to recreate ground-
breaking experiments of the past. As tutors see the potential for hands-on learning,
they describe their equipment needs to the lab director, who then provides a sketch to
the wood and metal shop. There, creativity and resourcefulness combine to produce
elegant, working devices—from balances to Faraday coil rotators. These rudimentary
instruments give students imaginative and intellectual access to experiments.