In the three-year laboratory program at St. John's, students learn not only from reasoned discourse, but also from hands-on observation and analysis. Relying as much as possible on primary texts and replicating experiments whenever possible, students consider the fundamental questions of scientists throughout the ages, exploring the theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler to those of Newton and Einstein; following the revolutionary thought and crucial experiments of scientists such as William Harvey in the 18th century and Watson and Crick in the 20th century.
The college does not subscribe to the sharp separation of scientific studies from the humanities, as if they were distinct and autonomous domains of learning. The integrity of scientific pursuits stems from sources common to all intellectual life.
A laboratory section consists of 14 to 16 students working under the guidance of a tutor, with the help of more advanced students serving as assistants. Labs meet two times a week, with one longer session for experiments and one shorter session for discussion.
In freshman laboratory, students look at animals and plants, and at physical and chemical phenomena. They learn the arts of careful observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation, as well as how to record what they observe in drawings, symbols, graphs, and mathematical expressions. The year is divided into what might be classified as biology, physics, and chemistry sequences, but the natural sciences are conceived as parts of a coherent whole. Students begin with the observation and understanding of plants and animals, reading texts such as Aristotle's Parts of Animals and On the Soul, and observing and dissecting animals. In a segment on measurement and equilibrium, students inquire into the foundations of a mathematical comprehension of nature, reading works by Archimedes, Pascal, Black, and Gay-Lussac. A study of the constitution of bodies begins with Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry and moves into a study of atomic theory by Dalton, Thomson, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, Cannizzaro. and Mendeleev.
Junior Laboratory combines reading and discussion with practical experiments: dynamics and optics in the fall, and waves and electricity in the spring. The texts range chronologically from Galileo to Maxwell. The main thread of the fall sequence is motion, its character and causes. Students and their tutors follow attempts to replace the Aristotelian efficient cause with concepts such as Descartes' quantity of motion, Leibniz's "living force," Newton's force, Mayer's causa, and Maxwell's treatment of work, kinetic and potential energy, and heat. Primary sources also works by Huygens, Taylor, Euler, Bernoulli, Faraday, and Maxwell.
In many ways, the work of the senior year is a return to questions the students first confronted as freshmen. During the first semester, the senior laboratory takes up anew the theory of atomism — but the atom itself has become the object of study. Prepared by work with electrical phenomena, the student can focus on the questions of atomic stability that led to the revolutionary quantum hypothesis of Bohr and the wave mechanics of de Broglie and Schrödinger. Through a sequence of historic scientific papers and related experiments, the concepts of particle and wave, of discreteness and continuity, gain new meaning.
The Laboratory program ends as it began – with a study of living organisms. In the spring of the senior year, students finally confront the evidence and arguments for their modern views of evolution and genetics. The semester begins with Darwin and Mendel, proceeds to a synthesis, and then traces developments in cellular and molecular biology which are thought to undergird this synthesis, as presented in seminal papers by twentieth century biologists. In addition, this work raises questions about whether there is purpose in nature, whether there are natural kinds, what distinguishes living from non-living, whether living things have a wholeness, and if so, what is responsible for it.
"Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice."
- Virginia Woolf