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High School Biology

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #71, 2006.

What you need to know before teaching high-school biology.
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Bill Pride

Biology is inescapable. When I was in high school, everyone needed a science course to graduate. The general rule of thumb was, "If you are going to take a science, take biology; it's the easiest, because it doesn't require much math." Recently when I took college biology it seemed like people from every major in the university were taking the course just to get their mandatory science course out of the way. If you have enough math, you can avoid biology as I did decades ago as an undergrad by taking chemistry and physics instead. But biology catches up with you eventually. If you decide to pursue a career as a health professional, a chemist, etc., biology will be featured on your list of required courses. And since I am taking my pre-med prerequisites to get ready to apply to optometry school, I inevitably found myself in college biology.

Since high school biology will either be preparing your student for college biology, or helping him to place out of it you should know what college biology is like.

What is College Biology Like?

I took biology at St. Louis University, a medium-large Jesuit college located in the heart of St. Louis, MO. My first impression of the course came in the campus bookstore. The required textbook for the course came in three 8-1/2 x 11" paperback volumes totalling 2-1/2" thick. Besides that I had to buy a blank lab manual, a lab textbook, a supplementary book called Napoleon's Buttons, and a clicker-over $200 total for materials.

What's a clicker? It's a small electronic device manufactured by eInstruction for a company called CPSOnline. The manufacturer calls it a "response pad," but "clicker" is what our instructors called it. The clicker has buttons labeled A/1, B/2, up to J/0, minus (-), dot (.), "Join," star (*), clear (C), left arrow, "Send," and right arrow.

Following instructions inside the box, I registered my clicker's unique serial number with CPSOnline so as far as they are concerned that device is me.

My second impression of college biology was the number of students in the lecture hall. Biology I had two lecture sections of about 200 students each. I used to sit in the center of the next to last row and from there the instructor looked about eight inches tall. She needed a P.A. system to be heard. The course was team taught, so our main instructor traded off during the term with two or three others depending on their specialties and the unit of the course being taught that week.

What were the chances that any of the instructors would know you personally out of so many? To tell you the truth, I don't know how it was for the 400 or so kids all trying to fit in and look exactly like one another. Chances are the professors could match names to faces for only a fraction of them. As the only 54-year-old student in the class, I apparently stood out, because the professor called me by name the first time I spoke with her.

As you might imagine with so many students, exams did not feature extensive essay questions. In fact the questions on tests were all multiple choice and answers were marked on answer sheets with a number two pencil, the same way you answer standardized tests.

Everything else was done with the clicker. The clicker "talks" with a computer at the front of the classroom. At the beginning of the term you log on to CPSOnline and enroll in your classes; CPSOnline assigns you a student number for that class. When the instructor wants feedback from the students, she puts up the "join" screen and everyone turns on their clickers, presses the join button, and enters the channel number on the screen. After flashing a red light for about ten seconds, the clicker switches to a green light and you know you are logged in.

The instructor can then display questions for a quiz, or a survey, or in-class exercise. You enter your response on the clicker and press the Send button. When the machine receives your answer, your number changes from blue-on-white to white-on-blue in an array of numbers displayed on the screen. The results can be automatically tabulated and, in the case of a quiz, uploaded and entered on your grade record for the course.

The labs were exactly the opposite of the lectures. Sections were small, about 20 students, and you had weekly interaction with your lab instructor or instructors. (I had two in Biology I and one in Biology II.) Weekly quizzes were written out-short answer, fill in, or multiple choice, graded by hand. We had to prepare extensive weekly lab reports, a scientific paper, and a PowerPoint presentation. The labs themselves were very cookbooky-first this step, next that step, etc.-but practically speaking, with so many lab sections of what was many students' first lab experience, they couldn't be too flexible. We were doing some pretty advanced and interesting things, but we were carefully guided through them in minute detail.

High School Biology

In your high school biology course, you will not use clickers, and your student will write out his tests which will be lovingly graded by hand. You will have more flexibility in topics you cover and choice of textbook and your student can be independent as you want him to be during lab time.

So how should you teach high-school biology? That depends on why you're teaching it. The most common reasons are:

  • Placing out of general biology in college via AP or CLEP
  • Meeting college entrancerequirements
  • Meeting high-school graduation requirements
  • Worldview equipping, i.e., evolution inoculation
  • Teaching to your student's interest in nature

You need to choose a curriculum that meets your goal(s).

AP Biology

The reason for taking AP Biology is to pass the AP Biology Examination administered each spring by the College Board. If you pass the exam with a 4 or 5, you can be assured of college credit for a year of biology at many major universities. St. Louis University gives a year of credit for a 5 on the AP exam; likewise M.I.T. At Cornell, a 4 gets you four biology credits, but you still have to take introductory biology to fulfill the university biology requirement. A 5 on the exam gets you eight biology credits and exempts you from the biology requirement. At Texas A&M, a 4 will get you credit for eight credits of biology. At Missouri Baptist University, a 3, 4, or 5 will earn you eight credits. You have to research the college you plan to attend, but you get the idea.

The content of an AP biology course has to mirror the content of the equivalent introductory biology course in college. University of Missouri at St. Louis offers an AP Biology course for high-school level students and describes it this way [emphasis mine]:

"This course examines the basics of biology. Topics include: The Nature of Cells; Energy and Metabolism; Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration; Cell Reproduction; Principles of Genetics: DNA; The Genetic Material; Evolution; Classification of Living Things; Viruses and Bacteria; Fungi; Plants; Invertebrates; and Vertebrates."

Notice the E-word right in the center of the list. The AP exam will assume a detailed knowledge of (and unquestioning belief in) evolution in the way questions are written and in the answers that are expected. If you believe evolution to be false, you need to discuss with your student how he should answer these questions.

Teaching to the CLEP biology exam requires similar course content.

College Entrance Requirements

Some college majors require a student to have up to two years of laboratory science in high school before they can be accepted into college. I would recommend that you make biology one of your lab sciences. You could take lab chemistry and lab physics instead, but your student will very likely still have to face biology in college. Your student will benefit greatly by being exposed to the immense vocabulary of biology a first time in high school so he won't be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of new words when he takes it in college.

Choice of college may affect your choice of curriculum. Recently, the California university system has started getting particular about the content of the high-school biology courses they will accept for the laboratory science requirement. They are rejecting courses taught from a creationist or intelligent design viewpoint, specifically courses that use BJU Press or A Beka textbooks. According to a lawsuit currently in progress on this issue, UC officials instructed parents to: "submit for UC approval a secular science curriculum with a text and course outline that addresses course content/knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

High-School Graduation Requirements

On a website published by the Education Commission of the States, it has this to say about graduation requirements in science:

Twenty states and the District of Columbia do not specify which science classes students must take. Of the states that do specify Carnegie units in science, 15 require Biology and either an integrated physical science class or separate Chemistry and Physics class; two require simply a unit of Biology. In a detailed list of graduation requirements linked to from the above site, I found the following states as the ones specifically requiring biology: AL, AR, GA, IN, LA, MD, MI, MN, MS, NC, OK, SD, TN, TX, and VA.

As far as I know, no review board or state examination in any state dictates what type of biology course is acceptable in homeschool for state graduation. Some states have tried to mandate the teaching of intelligent design or creationism alongside evolution in the public schools, or to teach evolution as a mere theory, but at the moment, I know of no state in which the content of a biology course has been an issue in invalidating a homeschool diploma. So, as far as high-school graduation is concerned, you can teach biology according to whatever worldview you have and pedagogical method you choose.

Where to Find It

Wondering where to find biology curriculum for homeschool?

Those looking for standard pre-college content have a choice of three types of curriculum and instruction:

Online (with lab). Your assignments, tests, and possibly class discussions are online. You have to purchase lab materials and conduct labs offline. Check first to be sure the online provider does not expect you to have access to a school lab for the experiments. That was the case with apexlearning.com, when our son took their chemistry course.

Dual-credit. You take courses at a local college, which count for both high-school and college credit. Make sure the college you plan to graduate from accepts transfer credit for this course.

Correspondence. More of these programs are becoming online courses. Some provide lab materials and equipment as well as the course-University of Nebraska-Lincoln for example.

Textbook (with lab). Every major textbook provider offers a high school biology course. Some also offer the lab equipment and supplies. Excellent lab kits for a number of suppliers are available from Ward's Homeschool or Home Science Tools.

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