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THE NATURE LAB – Beauty and Truth in Science Education at Waterford

Mark Bromley

This year the science department has begun to establish a Nature Lab, a concept linked to a strand of science education at Waterford that is central to our vision of liberal arts education. Knowledge in the liberal arts is closely aligned with moral excellence and aesthetic appreciation. Long before Keats, the classical philosophers laying the foundation of liberal arts education established the intimate connection between truth and beauty. To know the truth is to perceive its beauty. Both in its classical origins as natural philosophy, and in its modern incarnation committed to hypothesis-testing and rigorous quantitative evidence, science is a powerful tool for discovering truth — and for appreciating the abundant beauty of our intelligible universe. 

fossils in the nature lab Mark Bromley, the very first teacher hired by Founder Nancy Heuston to help develop the school’s vision for liberal arts education, embodies a deep passion for both truth and beauty. A highly-trained Zoologist, and a true naturalist in the mode of Charles Darwin, Mr. Bromley is also a skilled craftsman, capable of shaping stunning wood furniture by hand, and also building a classic Cobra Mustang from scratch. Mr. Bromley’s rare mix of knowledge, passion, and artistry has inspired generations of Waterford graduates. Whether they have gone on to be scientists or teachers themselves, all students of Mr. Bromley and his colleagues in the science department have learned the skills of paying attention, of observing closely the many faces of the natural world, and of perceiving the deep beauty that is close to truth. 

In a new assignment at Waterford, Mr. Bromley is working to extend the influence of his, and the science department’s, commitment to beauty and truth through the development of the Waterford Nature Lab. Currently housed in Mr. Bromley’s former classroom in the Art Building, the Nature Lab serves as both a practical tool for education and a living testament to the deep intertwining of science and art in the liberal arts tradition, and in the philosophy of science (and art) education at Waterford. The vision for what the Waterford Nature Lab will become is inspired by similar facilities around the world, notably the Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design. The picture here of the Waterford Nature Lab-in-process capture some of that vision. 

nature lab The uses for the Nature Lab will be both scientific and artistic. The impressive Waterford biological collection will inspire photographers and sketch artists to hone their skills of observation, while also allowing a new generation of Darwin- Bromleys to master systems of classification while searching for new phenomena. 

A prominent strand in Waterford’s approach to science education, sometimes affectionately referred to as “Victorian science,” continues to highlight the importance of close observation and hands-on engagement with nature. Even as Waterford also teaches molecular biology, and prepares students rigorously for the technology-driven practice of the modern life sciences, the school also affirms the enduring value of getting close to nature and bringing nature close to us. Ultimately, in the liberal arts tradition, the goal of all our learning should be to internalize knowledge to a depth where we are changed by the experience — the knowledge ceases to be mere content in our notes or on hard drives in the cloud and becomes a part of who we are and how we think. 

In his new role as Director and Curator of the Waterford Nature Lab, Mr. Bromley will be working on several fronts to ensure that the approach to science education that he has been so central in establishing at Waterford over the past four decades will continue and improve. The Nature Lab initiative provides a great opportunity for Mr. Bromley to write new curricula, based in the Nature Lab’s resources, for students across all the grade levels at the school. At the same time, Mr. Bromley will be curating the collection of teaching specimens, and helping to shape the future of science education at Waterford. No one could possibly be better positioned to ensure that science education at Waterford remains firmly grounded in the dual commitments to truth and beauty that are so important in the liberal arts, and that have so profoundly influenced generations of Waterford students. 

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