Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Science is a dynamic process by which we seek to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We use the language and methods of science and mathematics on a daily basis. Science and mathematics nurture a special kind of creativity by enhancing our abilities to ask concise, meaningful questions and to design strategies to answer those questions. Such approaches teach us to think and work in new ways and to uncover and evaluate facts and place them in the context of modern society and everyday life. The division of Science and Mathematics offers classes in a variety of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics. Studies in each of these disciplines are offered at all levels, ranging from open courses to advanced seminars and individual laboratory research projects.
Qualified students have the option of enrolling in a Science Third Program. In the Science Third, students register for the seminar component of two science/ mathematics courses simultaneously, comprising one-third of their curriculum. Because Science Third students will still be able to take two additional nonscience courses each semester, this option is an opportunity for well-prepared or advanced students to study multiple science courses without limiting their options in other disciplines.
Biology is the study of life in its broadest sense, ranging from topics such as the role of trees in affecting global atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the molecular mechanisms switching genes on and off in human brain cells. Biology includes a tremendous variety of disciplines: molecular biology, immunology, histology, anatomy, physiology, developmental biology, behavior, evolution, ecology, and many others. Because Sarah Lawrence College faculty members are broadly trained and frequently teach across the traditional disciplinary boundaries, students gain an integrated knowledge of living things—a view of the forest as well as the trees.
Chemistry seeks to understand our physical world on an atomic level. This microscopic picture uses the elements of the periodic table as building blocks for a vast array of molecules, ranging from water to DNA. But some of the most fascinating aspects of chemistry involve chemical reactions, where molecules combine and transform—sometimes dramatically—to generate new molecules.
Chemistry explores many areas of our physical world, ranging from our bodies and the air that we breathe to the many products of the human endeavor, including art and a plethora of consumer products. Students at Sarah Lawrence College may investigate these diverse areas of chemistry through a variety of courses: Atmospheric Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Nutrition, Photographic Chemistry, and Extraordinary Chemistry of Everyday Life, to name a few. In addition to these courses, the College routinely offers General, Organic, and Biochemistry to provide a foundation in the theories central to this discipline.
Just as experimentation played a fundamental role in the formulation of the theories of chemistry, it plays an integral part in learning them. Therefore, laboratory experiments complement many of the seminar courses.
What is computer science? Ask 100 computer scientists, and you will likely receive 100 different answers. One possible, fairly succinct, answer is that computer science is the study of algorithms: step-by-step procedures for accomplishing tasks formalized into very precise, atomic (indivisible) instructions. An algorithm should allow for a task to be accomplished by someone who or something that does not even understand the task. In other words, it is a recipe for an automated solution to a problem. Computers are tools for executing algorithms. (Not that long ago, “computer” referred to a person who computed!)
What are the basic building blocks of algorithms? How do we go about finding algorithmic solutions to problems? What makes an efficient algorithm in terms of the resources (time, memory, energy) that it requires? What does the efficiency of algorithms say about major applications of computer science such as cryptology, databases, and artificial intelligence? Computer science courses at Sarah Lawrence College are aimed at answering questions such as those. Sarah Lawrence computer science students also investigate how the discipline intersects other fields of study, including mathematics, philosophy, biology, and physics.
Whether they had any interest in mathematics in high school, students often discover a new appreciation for the field at Sarah Lawrence College. In our courses—which reveal the inherent elegance of mathematics as a reflection of the world and how it works—abstract concepts literally come to life. That vitality further emerges as faculty members adapt course content to fit student needs, emphasizing the historical context and philosophical underpinnings behind ideas and theories. By practicing rigorous logic, creative problem solving, and abstract thought in small seminar discussions, students cultivate habits of mind that they can apply to every interest. With well-developed, rational thinking and problem-solving skills, many students continue their studies in mathematics, computer science, philosophy, medicine, law, or business; others go into a range of careers in fields such as insurance, technology, defense, and industry.
Physics—the study of matter and energy, time and space, and their interactions and interconnections—is often regarded as the most fundamental of the natural sciences. An understanding of physics is essential for an understanding of many aspects of chemistry, which in turn provides a foundation for understanding a variety of biological processes. Physics also plays an important role in most branches of engineering, and the field of astronomy essentially is physics applied on the largest of scales. As science has progressed over the last century or so, the boundaries between the different scientific disciplines have become blurred, and new interdisciplinary fields such as chemical physics, biophysics, and engineering physics have arisen. For these reasons, and because of the excellent training in critical thinking and problem solving provided by the study of physics, this subject represents an indispensable gateway to the other natural sciences and a valuable component of a liberal arts education.