Imagination Is the Heart of Science: Founding Teacher Reflects on SAAS Curriculum

19 August, 2014   |     |   Academic Programs, Faculty, Science
Photo Above: SAAS founding science teacher Melinda Mueller leads a computer skills lesson in sign language on the 2013 SAAS Zambia Trip.


In the late 1660’s, a Dutch draper named Anton van Leeuwenhoek designed and meticulously handcrafted a microscope to peer at a drop of water. Not knowing what he was about to see, he simply thought that maybe there was a phenomenon beyond what was readily apparent. Over and over, curious individuals like Leeuwenhoek—now often referred as the Father of Microbiology—have demonstrated something Einstein would later say: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

At Seattle Academy, we put this idea into practice every day. We have a long history of creatively using the resources at hand, making students collaborators in their own education, and encouraging innovation—especially in science. We know that sciences of our future may seem as supernatural to us now as the idea of clear water teeming with organisms was to Leeuwenhoek’s predecessors. That’s why we equip students with knowledge and analytical skills and then put tools in their hands so they can explore and invent.

“We already have been moving in the sciences into design-thinking with the robotics and sustainability programs and ideas for new science electives,” said founding science teacher Melinda Mueller. “And that’s what science really is about. It’s how life actually works, right? Biology is about natural selection and evolution and figuring out how to deal with a changing world.”

In 2015, we’ll be opening our first new building in more than a decade; STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Environment, Arts and Math). With seven new labs (including one specifically for robotics and innovations), the new building will improve science electives by adding lab components, make space for new curriculum like nanotechnology, and “things we haven’t even dreamed of yet,” Melinda said. Three large prep rooms will have additional space to house students’ long-term and independent study experiments, which makes more room for self-directed exploration.

“We’re not a place where you’ve got this hierarchy: ‘here are the experts who know everything, and here are the students who know nothing, and the expert runs the thing,’” said Melinda. “That’s not how it works. That would be like the coach going out and playing the game. The students need to be doing it.”

The new lab classrooms will have modular tables, so teachers can switch from a lecture setup to group experiments—and back again—with ease. This means class itineraries can transform on the spot according to student or teacher inspirations.

“You don’t have to plan way ahead for ‘oh shoot, it would be really cool now if we could do ‘x,’” Melinda said. “We’ve got this idea. Alright, well let’s do it. Move the tables!”

SAAS teachers, who have a long history of meeting limitations with creative vision, have already developed programs that far outpace the number labs we have now. Their spirit of invention is what keeps the school’s curriculum as a living, breathing phenomenon.

“It’s in the DNA of the school at this point,” Melinda said. “We look around for interesting possibilities and we use them. If you look at the narrative of SAAS, there is this continuity—if we need something to do our mission correctly, and we don’t have it, we’ll find a way to make it happen—whether that’s using resources in the community or saying ‘well, we gotta build it.’”

In this case, it turns out we “gotta build it.” So we broke ground on the STREAM building in June, which is by no accident connected to the Arts Center, so arts and science classes can readily collaborate through the year. The robotics lab in the STREAM basement will be a place for cross-curricular creative projects of all kinds, like the mechanical lion puppet that starred in last Spring’s theatrical production of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Maria Montessori said, “Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.”
So we teach students robotics, teach them to invent, teach them art, let them challenge the boundaries between disciplines, and help them develop experiments and inventions of their own brainchild.  By giving kids these tools to create, we make spaces in which they can build and imagine that which they’ve never seen before. That is the way to prepare young people for the future.

Author: Madeline Reddington ‘07