Or: How to survive a science course, with special attention to the problems of studying biology
At the heart of all science is something called the scientific method. The simple version of the scientific method is based on the idea that the objective reality of the universe can be determined by carefully observing phenomena, recording appropriate measurements, then studying the data from these observations for patterns that can be used to describe the general behavior of classes of natural objects. When we can control the circumstances of the observations, we are performing experiments, but often we cannot control all the factors before we make observations. There are scientists who believe that the only valid scientific data is that which comes from controlled experiments; in their view, most of astronomy, meteorology, geology, and many parts of biology are not rigorously scientific. For the purposes of this course, we will use a somewhat looser definition of valid scientific observation.
Man's search for patterns led him to keep track of many biological phenomena from very early in recorded history. Most organisms have the same characteristics, often in the same forms, although they may live in very different habitats. When scientists find similarities in structure, they want to study them to see if there is some common cause behind the similarities. When the scientist finds a reasonable explanation, he or she proposes a hypothesis, a testable statement about the phenomena. Hypotheses that stand up over many repeated observations are combined to make theories; distillations of theories that have no known exceptions may be called natural laws. In biology, we are particularly concerned with chemical reactions and energy storage and release (metabolic reactions), the organization of living matter (cell structure), and similiarities and diversity in life forms (classification of organisms, evolution).
Science classes are frightening for many students. They anticipate difficulties with the concepts, with the details, and especially with the math. But science is just one way of thinking about the natural world around us, and anyone can learn to think like a scientist. Don't waste energy worrying about your ability to learn the material; use your energy to learn it! Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to discover, understand, and appreciate the complexity of God's creation better. You will also be better prepared to take your place as a steward of that creation.
Review the prerequisites for the course. These are the concepts and math skills that you should have mastered in order to succeed in learning the material. The math prerequisites for this course are described in the course overview page and the FAQs page. If you have any questions about your readiness for the course, be sure to ask for help during our first session. I will arrange to work with you so that you can gain the required skills quickly.
Every science course has as its main components lectures, reading assignments, labs, and lots of homework to prepare you for taking quizzes and exams. In addition to these, our online course has this website, the Moodle, and e-mail to provide the functions that would normally exist in talking to your teacher face-to-face, or looking at a bulletin board or whiteboard. Keeping track of all the components can be a daunting task, especially at first, so plan to spend some time becoming familiar with the course website, your text, and the Moodle. Once you have mastered the mechanics of using these tools, you can concentrate on learning the material that they contain.
Why are there so many parts to the course? Well, part of the reason is that you learn in many ways. You memorize facts, you comprehend relationships, and eventually, you understand concepts. You learn by reading, by seeing pictures and graphs, by watching demonstrations of processes, by participating in discussions, and by applying what you are learning to specific situations in the homework and labs. You "cement" what you've learned by teaching others. The organization and materials of the course require that you take all these approaches.
Make the commitment, now, to spend adequate time on coursework. While this biology course is not as mathematically demanding as some of the others offered at Scholars Online, you cannot do all the work for a given unit on one day ... and you shouldn't do it just before chat session! The table below is a rough guide and a suggested pace for this course. The amount of time you spend on each part of the assigned work will vary greatly from student to student, and your schedule will of course depend on your other commitments. Work out a reasonable work load and stick to it!
Try to do your reading as early as possible. This allows you to think about the questions and material, review it in your mind, and absorb it more critically.
Checklist for normal schedule
Check Website for instructions
Monday/Wednesday/Friday after chat
Read Web Lecture
Read Text Assignment (and work through example problems!)
Watch videos, perform simultions or Lessons
Post essays and assignment to Moodle
Complete AP example
Thursday (due Friday)
Make observations for lab
Perform calculations/reduce data
Write lab report
Tuesday or Thursday
Take Moodle quiz
(only at the end of the chapter)
Rather than take our precious chat time by lecturing to you, all unit lectures are posted to the site. You need to read these as well as the text. The Homework and Weblecture pages between them have
The "checkpoint" exercises ask you to figure something out, then offer you the opportunity to check your answer. Try to figure things out before hitting the "answer" button! If you were correct, and your reasoning was correct, congratulations! You are ready to continue with the next concept. If you missed the answer, but understand the correction, make a note to review the concept later. If you don't understand the explanation, ask the teacher during class, or send e-mail requesting further help.
As you read the web lecture, make notes on anything that puzzles you, and be sure to raise your questions in class.
As you plan your workload, be sure that you give yourself enough time to
TAKE NOTES! Outline the chapter, even if the text supplies you with an outline. After each section, write down the important points it makes, any items of particular interest, and any questions that you have.
You should spend some time becoming familiar with your text. Read through the preface and note the use of "Big Ideas: this terminology is from the AP Curriculum definitions, and is used in a number of texbooks now.
It is important to understand what agendas your authors have — even the most ideologically objective author has some agenda by which he chooses what to include and how to organize his material. Knowing the authors' material and teaching agenda swill help you learn and organize the material they present and make the most of the learning tools they have incorporated into the text.
One of the material agendas the authors adopt is to help students acquire a framework of key biological concepts into which they can fit practical consequences (connections). A conceptual framework is like the structure of a house. You can populate the house with any ideas which will fit in the existing rooms. When the idea doesn't fit, it is rejected as incompatible with the basic framework. In science, it is never enough to just collect observations. A scientist must organize and explain the observations, find cause and effect relationships, predict future events, and even account for observations made after theory formation. When a science has a dominant theory such as relativity, quantum mechanics, or evolution in place, the first effort with any new data is to try to fit it into the dominant theory, into the conceptual framework.
The current conceptual framework four modern biology is based on four ideas:
Most biologists believe that the theory of evolution can account for more observations than any other proposed scientific theory. Understanding the theory of evolution is necessary to understanding how most biologists currently organize and interpret information and evaluate competing theories. Any proposed theory must provide an equally useful conceptual framework as well as accounting for the observable phenomena.
One of the authors' teaching agendas is to use good graphics to help you understand the material. Many people learn more easily from pictures than from words, and most people learn from both. So don't ignore the pictures — sometimes there is more information in the diagrams than there is in the text!
Study the table of contents and note the organization of material. We are going to start with cell theory, since cell structure is common to all forms of life. Then we talk about inheritance — how DNA and RNA are used to pass information from generation to generation and cell to cell. Most of the information presented in these two units is less than a hundred years old. Then we discuss the basic theory of evolution and how it is used to explain the fossil evidence for plants and animals that no longer exist, as well as the current diversity of species and their distribution throughout the world. In the spring semester we will study the different systems found in complex animals, such as the nervous system and the circulatory system. We then look at systems in plants, in order to describe how they grow and reproduce. Finally, we look at organisms in situ, that is, at life forms as they co-exist in nature. Notice that we move from the microscopic structures found in almost all life forms to the individual habitats of particular animals and plants.
Much of the effort in biology has gone into naming organisms, parts of organisms, and the processes of life and relationships between organisms. It is essential that you learn all these terms in order to understand and master the material. Make a list of the bold-faced terms in the chapter, and drill yourself on terminology regularly. Check your definitions with the glossary in the back of the book.
Each topic is discussed in a numbered chapter module that ends with a question. Be sure that you can answer the question before going on to the next module. At the end of each chapter are multiple choice questions on the material in the current chapter. I will not specifically assign or collect your answers to these textbook multiple choice questions, but I urge you to look through them rapidly to test your comprehension after you first read the chapter. Answer all the questions as quickly as you can, then check your answers in the back of the textbook, and if you get any of the questions wrong, review the material before continuing with the study guide exercises.
I will be using the essay topics in the chapter review sections at the end of each chapter of the chapter for your essays and as a guide for discussion. You may be assigned to write on one question from these, or on a similar topic, and present your answer in class each week. You should read through all the topics, not just the ones assigned, so that you understand the essays presented by other students.center>
Homework is not merely useful, it is essential for mastering the concepts of a science course. Just as we test theories by applying them to experimental situations, you test your understanding by applying it to specific situations. You will know whether you understand a concept if you can use it to solve a "real-world" problem, and when you can teach it to someone else.
We use both techniques in this course. You will be assigned both word-essay questions and observational data analysis for each unit. You should work all of these. You will also be asked to post the answer to at least one question and one calculation problem to the Moodle. This is your opportunity to explain to your fellow students what you know.
Your reading assignment will be on both the Moodle and the Schedule page, along with links to my Web lecture and study notes for the assignment. You are expected to do any online exercises, videos, and tutorials assoicated with the reading that are mentioned in the homework page or weblecture.
The assigned problems for each chat session and your individual posting assignment will be at the Moodle forum for the day's chat.
NB: mycroft, the original bot for my science classes, has long since been freed to do other things, like attend class, make obnoxious remarks, and aid stumped students. If you really get stuck figuring out the problem you've been asked to post, mycroft has been known to accept bribes in the form of virtual Oreo cookies to finish your problem for you.
Essay questions ask you to explain a concept in words. As you answer a science essay question, be prepared to cite calculation information as well as concepts, or give examples.
For example: What are the advantages of breathing air, rather than absorbing oxygen from water? What are the disadvantages?
A good answer will be grammatically and syntactically correct, using proper English, as well as contain the correct information. It will cover more than one point in supporting its argument.
Oxygen is present in far less concentration in water than in air, so aquatic animals must work harder to extract the oxygen required for metabolic functions from water than land animals must work to extract the same amount of oxygen from air. However, not all the advantages are with the land animals, which must struggle to maintain adequate water internally against their dryer environment.
The text includes a number of questions that ask you to think about different situations the way a scientist would. They may ask you how you would create an experiment to test for or gather information about a given area. Often they present the results of a particular research project or experiment, and ask you to analyze the results. While you may not actually need to "do math" calculations to come up with the answer, you sometimes need to "think mathematicallly", looking at a set of numbers for trends or similar patterns. Don't panic on these! Spend the time to visualize the information. Draw a chart of the numbers, if you think it will help you see trends. And always, ask questions in class if you don't understand the point of the question or its answer.
Chat sessions are 90 minutes. Plan accordingly, and take a break just before class starts. Do some stretching, go to the bathroom, eat or get your drinks before you enter the classroom. Be sure to try to connect to your ISP and check mail 10 minutes before class if possible, in case any late notices have been sent by the teacher. Give yourself the extra time. High traffic on your ISP or the school server can slow you down and force you to miss the first 5 to 10 minutes of class.
If you have not already done so, post your assigned questions and answers to the Moodle before the start of class.
Bring your textbook, notes, homework calculations, and paper and pencil to class. If you are comfortable using a desktop calculator and taking notes in a text utility like Notepad (available as different applications on both Windows and Macintosh), you can use those. You may also find a dictation program like Dragon helps reduce typing, either into chat or taking notes. Take notes during class. Since Scholars Online logs the chat sessions, you do not need to document things the teacher or other students say, but it is useful to note your own questions and observations as they occur, so that you can study them later.
Take part in the discussion. Ask questions as they occur to you (or note them and ask them at the end of class).
Chat sessions in biology occasionally involve discussion of mathematical calculations. One convention we use is underscore (_) for subscript and up-arrow (^) for superscript. The term x_1 ^2 means "take the value x-sub-1 and square it". You may be more used to seeing this written as x12, and we can actually do that in Dr. Bruce's chat, but it requires a bit of typing. If you prefer to use HTML tags, then here's a quick guide:
}F_g = (GMm)/r^2
will appear as
Your teacher will provide more instructions during the first few chats.
After chat, log into the chat window again, hit the button for past chat logs, and print the log out. As soon as possible after class, review the log and make notes on it about any points that bother you, and be sure to ask about these in our next session. Mark important points for review later. Consult your notes or the Scholars Online copy of the log to review before the next session and before semester examinations
All the biology examinations examinations (quizzes and finals) which I use to evaluate your understanding and progress in chemistry will be drawn from the homework questions in the text. It is very important that you complete the homework problems, study questions, and any reports assigned to prepare for the exams for this course.
There are multiple choice questions at the end of each textbook chapter. Use these to drill yourself as you read. After you've done the reading, homework, study guide, and we've had our discussion, it is time to take the Moodle quiz. These quizzes include 10-30 multiple choice, short calculation, and other format questions and are timed. When you take the quiz, you will receive immediate feedback for your attempt. You will have a second chance to take the quiz for review during the grace period before midterm exams.
Start your review two weeks prior to the scheduled examination.
For each chapter covered by the exam
There will be two major exams (semsester exams). These may be mailed electronically to you, or you may take them on the Moodle. Either way, you will need your parent or other responsible adult to act as as proctor. If you take the exam (or part of the exam, such as the multiple choice section) in the Moodle, you will need to complete it before it closes. If I email the exam to you, or if you take the problem section of the exam on paper, you will need to type or scan in your answers to a computer file, and upload the file to the Moodle assignment for that exams before the assignment closes.
Most exams will include a multiple-choice or other format objective section, a lab-themed essay, and an essay section on topics. The multiple choice section will be closed book, as will the lab essay. The remaining essay questions may be open book to allow you to verify specific data points, but will include topics spanning multiple chapters.
Yes, of course you may study together — remember that explaining or teaching what you just learned to someone else is one of the important techniques of learning! You may also work together to solve the homework problems ... but be sure that you can solve them on your own afterwards, since you cannot work as a study group on quizzes or examinations. Let me know if you need special chat times for your study group.
One of the basic methods of science is to secure documented observations of periodic or common events in order to make some general summary about the behavior of natural objects. We can do this in several ways.
All observations of stars and planets, most observations of plants and animals in their native habitats, and many observations of geological specimens, meteorological events, are "field" observations. The situations must be allowed to occur without human direction, either because such direction is impossible (we can't control when a star will go nova), or because human intervention would interfer with the observation (we don't want to feed animals if we are researching their eating habits in the wild). The best we can do is make many observations of phenomena that are as similar as possible.
Laboratory-based observations are much more tightly controlled. Specific techniques and equipment are used for particular kinds of data collection. The experimenter can often vary only one factor at a time to see how it affects other dependencies. This allows many experimentalists to compare their results easily.
Frequently, research in one area reveals a tendency for a particular phenomena\on to behave a certain way. Rather than simply starting to observe the phenomena anew, one may choose to go back through past observations, looking for the same patterns or evidence of how nature behaved in similar circumstances. Surveys of historical data are common in weather studies, where such records exist for periods of 100 to 150 years, in astronomical observations, and in biological field studies of population growth and change.
Surveys and re-examination of biological data are very common, since population fluxuation may not be noticed until some particular event directs our attention toward it.
Most field observations should be designed to collect information without interfering with normal plant or animal behavior, but this is difficult to achieve in practice. In general, any instruments or human interference required to gather and record data requires direct contact with animals, making it difficult to eliminate the interference issue.
Observational methods also pose ethical dilemmas which as us to question whether it is right to perform experiments on the subjects, and to what extent certain kinds of experiments, such as injections with chemicals to test reactions, should be permitted. In designing any experiment, you should consider the legal implications and your own moral stand.
Biology experiments in the lab generally chemical experiments in nature, and chemistry-type experiments, of all the sciences we teach at Scholars Online, pose the most dangers to the students. Glass equipment, sharp edges, open and very hot flams, and chemicals that are able to burn or poison, are all hazards. The safety guide on the Science website provides a general guide, but far better is the safety information in your Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments, and the safety information that comes with the chemicals and equipment that you may purchase. We will spend significant time on safety practices for chemists, and you will need to complete a lab safety quiz before your lab reports will count toward your grade, as well as three "skills and safety" lab exercises.
Your lab report is the evidence of your observations of a particular phenomena. Your observations should be presented in such a way that the data is easy to understand and supports your conclusions, but also with enough detail on how you obtained them that any peer with similar equipment could repeat your experience and confirm your results (or challenge them, as the case may be).
Organization: A good science lab report has at least seven sections:
Water samples from seven different sites in the Bellevue area were taken monthly on the 15th day of the month and tested to determine whether seasonal changes occured in levels of nitrates, sulfates, and acids. We expected to find increased levels during the summer months when less rain was available to provide fresh water and solutes would be more concentrated. While nitrate levels decreased during the summer moths, sulfate and acid levels rose, suggesting a more complex cycle dependent on factors other than rain levels.
50 ml pipet
7 baby food jars, sterilized, with lids
ion detection sample kit from aquarium supply store for determining levels of nitrite, nitrate, sulfate
pH indicator paper with a range from 3 to 9
Using a pipet, a 25 ml sample was collected and transferred to a sterilized, dry glass jar from six inches below the surface where standing water wast at least two feet deep. Every effort was made to avoid scum, insect life, and soil contamination. Because of the distance between source sites, it was not possible to collect all samples at the same time of day, resulting in sources that were at different temperatures.
TABLE 4: pH readings
|1 Larsen Lake||6.7|
|2 Phantom Lake||6.9|
|3 Sunset Creek||7.0|
|4 Kelsey Creek (farm)||7.3|
|5 Kelsey Creek (trestle)||6.8|
|6 Boeing Pond||7.1|
|7 Freeway Pond||6.9|
Average pH in January = sum(6.7, 6.9, 7.0, 7.3,6.8,7.1,6.9)/7 = 6.96 =~ 7.0
|Site||Average pH||Max pH||Min pH||Average NO3-ppt|
|1 Larsen Lake|
|2 Phantom Lake|
|3 Sunset Creek|
|4 Kelsey Creek (farm)|
|5 Kelsey Creek (trestle)|
|6 Boeing Pond|
|7 Freeway Pond|
Levels of nitrates rose in winter and fell in summer, as expected, with a maximum in Februray of 22ppt and a mininum in August of 18ppt. However, sulfates and acidity followed the reverse trend, with maxium amounts in February and minimum amounts in August. This suggests that additional rain in the winter months was possibly contaminated with sulfuric acid ("acid rain"), increasing sulfates and the acidity level. Further testing of rain water captured separately from the standing water sources are be necessary to show whether this is the source of the additional sulfate solutes found.
Because of the nature of field observations, there are some kinds of data that you should always include for any observing session.
Part of each semester's assignments is a research paper of 4-7 pages (1000 - 1500 words), written as a research proposal on some specific area of biology, and due at the same time as your semester examination.
You may use any and all resources at your command, including websites, text, other books, magazine articles, etc. You may spend any amount of time on the report that you wish, and you can work on it before and finish it after the exam if you so choose, but it is usually due at the same time as the semester exam.
TOPIC: You may choose a topic from either semester's biology materials, where you can discuss how it is an example of a class of biological objects, what makes the particular object interesting, and how it might be studied. For example, you could choose a cell organelle like ribosomes, a particular gene or genetic defect, or a particular application of evolution theory. You must submit your proposed topic to the teacher and have it approved before continuing your researc.
REPORT FORMAT: The report should include the following sections:
From a grading standpoint, I would like you to show me that you understand something about the general characteristics of one of these areas:
If you chose a particular organelle, for example, you should show how organelles are similar, how they differ and what those differences are based on (e.g, is it on their chemical composition? function? development over time within the organism?), what is particularly interesting about the example you chose, and how to gather scientific data about these objects, analyze them, and draw conclusions from them that tell us about these basic characteristics.
You will upload your paper as to the Moodle assignment location by its due date. It must be in acceptable format (Word DOC (not DOCX), RTF, Ascii text (TXT), PDF, or Mac Pages format). If you use another word processor, please check with me before uploading the file; I may not be able to read it.
Past research topics have included
Planning Field Observations....
Six of the labs are field labs. These are intended to give you some idea of how a biologist conducts studies of living organisms in their native environments. While these labs are not difficult, you will need to plan ahead for them.
The field labs should be conducted in the same area, so that you can compare your observations of populations and communities over time. You will need to select a place that you can visit repeatedly from September through July, and from which you can remove samples of plant and insect life. If at all possible, the area should have a source of standing water which you can use to get protista (single-celled aquatic life forms). It is best if the area is not heavily landscaped or traveled, so try to find a field or woods away from the road in the back corner of your yard, or better, a park.
Be prepared to work around the weather. You may find that you can't observe your area for several weeks at a time because of rain or snow; do something else with that time and take advantage of weather opportunities.
The major stories in biology these days tend to focus on genetics, with cloning, use of human tissues for cell replacement, and gene mapping posing stories that both fascinate us and challenge us socially, technically, and ethically. If you find something interesting in the news, be sure to ask about it in class.
© 2016, 2017 This course is offered through Scholars Online, a non-profit organization supporting classical Christian education through Internet-based courses. Permission to copy course content (lessons and labs) for personal study is granted to students currently or formerly enrolled in the course through Scholars Online. Reproduction for any other purpose, without the express written consent of the author, is prohibited.