Science Department update

May 6, 2021
Albert Leger

Whether it’s a robot, a wooden puzzle or a PVC T-shirt launcher, there’s not much that can’t be built in Exeter’s Design Lab, a makerspace in the Phelps Science Center. Often filled with young creators, the makerspace is key to preparing young scientists for an ever-connected world and incorporating design thinking into the curriculum. “We have a huge opportunity to make the Design Lab more integrated into our science classes,” Chair of the Department of Science Albert Léger says. “Students could study an organ in biology, learn how it functions by writing code in computer class, then build it in the makerspace using a 3D printer.

An instructor at Exeter since 2006, Léger graduated from Harvard University, received a master’s degree from the University of New Brunswick and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He was named chair of the Department of Science in 2020 and has been the head coach of the boys crew team since 2015.

Léger sees Design Lab projects as a way to break down barriers between scientific sub-disciplines, offering students greater opportunities to be, say, a biochemist or geochemist, instead of specializing in only one discipline. “We want students to be agile and use their background knowledge to make these connections,” he says. Another priority is integrating equity, inclusion and social justice topics in science lessons. “As a department, we’re thinking about how to teach science in ways that invite everyone to the process of making science and opens students’ eyes to what’s happening in the world,” Léger says.

We’re thinking about how to teach science to students in ways that are more open, diverse and inclusive."
Albert Léger

A physics class discussion about battery power, for example, may lead to a conversation about the metals inside the battery. Where does that material come from and what impact does its extraction and disposal have on local communities? “We’re trying to find age-appropriate and level-appropriate examples to bring into our classes to expand what we think about when we think about science."

Conversations around the table are enhanced by state-of-the-art equipment — from microscopes to Grainger Observatory’s computer-automated telescope — that revolutionize how Léger and his peers teach and “helps students access that sense of wonder,” he says. Last year, the department received stereoscopic dissection microscopes with video cameras that enable teachers to project images of what’s under the microscope, a valuable tool during virtual learning. “Science is so much more than a textbook,” Léger says. “We’re there to guide them as they discover and learn from each other about the process and the joy of science.”

Albert Leger works with students.

Department quick takes

Students pursue their passions

Sanath Govindarajan ’20 wanted to take the experiments he began in BIO 586: Molecular Genetics a few steps farther. For his senior project, he rewrote a series of algorithms to analyze and align data and successfully mapped the fruit fly genome. Now studying computer science and economics at University of Texas/Austin, Govindarajan continues to add to Exeter students’ fruit fly research by using a university supercomputer to crunch the data even further.

New voices on campus 

Scientists visit campus regularly — virtually and in-person when safe — to engage with students on topics ranging from whales to bird species. Author and activist Dr. Katherine Wilkinson headlined Exeter’s virtual Climate Action Day in 2021 saying, “we’ve had a fractured and incomplete ‘we’ in the climate movement,” and called for more students to add their voices to the climate conversation.

Student-teacher collaborations

For three years, Lucy Sun ’20 worked, with the guidance of science instructor Alison Hobbie, on solving a worldwide worry — affordable access to clean drinking water. During her senior year, Sun developed a photocatalytic filter system that utilizes a novel titanium dioxide and activated carbon composite to not only remove fungi, bacteria, chloroform and trihalomethanes from water, but break down the pollutants into non-harmful components.

On-the-ground experiences 

Expeditions to destinations like the National Oceanographic Laboratory at Woods Hole or Yellowstone National Park spark student curiosity. “The sense of discovery that comes from these trips is awesome,” Léger says. Addie Luce ’21 visited Yellowstone as a lower, speaking with wildlife experts, watching for wolves, mountain goats and grizzly bears, hiking and examining the geology. “I connected and bonded with teachers and my peers while also learning so much about the park,” Luce says. “It completely changed my Exeter experience and convinced me to take more biology courses.”

The Exeter Bulletin

Back to nature

Students build toy prototypes in the Design Lab

The Exeter Bulletin

Tinker time