Teaching Biology at Home

Upper level science at home can be a challenge, but teaching biology at home can be very rewarding if you plan for it. This article can help you teach biology confidently. Let’s discuss some of the many options available for learning high school level biology at home.

Biology, the study of life, is different from physics and chemistry. On the foundational level it is not based upon mathematics, yet, it is one of the most complex sciences. There are many parts to a good biology course, some important to your student and others, not so important. So, before you start to plan for biology at home, you should consider why you are teaching it and what you want your students to know, and then you can think about course details like text, notebook, and labs.

Why are you teaching science at home and why particularly biology?
It is true that the colleges usually require the course for admission, but any student should have a basic understanding of life and life processes. As Christians, we want our children to appreciate life as the Designer created it. As parents, we want our children, once they are adults, to understand some of the ramifications of biological decisions they might make. Examples of biological decisions are: how should we stop the pests from eating in the garden, is the water safe to drink, is a genetically engineered tomato bad or good for the market, and should I vote pro-life or pro-choice? So, considering why you are teaching biology leads directly to deciding what you will cover.

Let’s make a list. We see that we should cover life and life processes, that is, plants and animals and how they function. In the study of forms and functions we will learn about the designs of the Creator and in the process learn more about Him. We should add health and well being to our list of topics. We might also include something about being wise citizens with limited resources. This narrows the topics to: animals, plants, health, and ecology.  If you have a more advanced student, say a tenth grader, you should include genetics and cellular biology. Next, list of all the things you personally want the children to learn in biology class. You may decide to include child development, animal habitats, or butchering venison. An outline of what a biology course usually contains is in the post: “What every biology student should know“.  Take the list you have made, combine it with the fundamentals list and then divide the combined list into sections. You will take the sections and plan your schedule next.

A note about timing: because high school biology is an observational course, a student does not need a grasp of algebra before taking it. This means that a seventh grader can study biology and certainly, biology is what you see in the course called “life science”. I have observed, though, that the life science course is completely repeated later in biology. One of the advantages of homeschooling is that we are not bound by the norms of regular schools, so skip life science and have your student do high school biology in seventh grade. The topics of genetics and cellular biology are more difficult, not to mention, more controversial in current events, you may choose to leave out those topics and cover them later after your student has had critical thinking and chemistry. These can become part of Biology II, an extra semester of biology on the transcript.

The study method I suggest incorporates some of the advantages of both traditional learning and unit study methods. Let’s look at the basic topics that we will cover in a year of biology: animals, plants, health and human anatomy, cellular biology, and ecology. Take out a sheet of paper and divide it into seasons of your school year. Let’s plan. Well, because it does not make sense to study plants when they are not growing, we put plants in the spring or fall of our school year. Let’s choose fall. The study of animals does not depend so much on the outdoors, but we would like to go to a couple of zoos and farms. Early spring is a good time for that, and also for seeing some babies being born. We have been able to borrow a microscope and slides, so we’ll do that during the winter days when it is best to stay inside (cellular biology). Winter is also a good time to be doing dissection or model building (animals). Ecology is best studied outside so we will plan on late spring or summer for our hikes and visits to the parks. We still have spring left for human anatomy and health. Fortunately, almost any text we choose can be adapted to our schedule. Note: Do you notice that the lab work or fieldwork is playing a major role in determining when we actually do the bookwork? This coordinates your year and adds interest to your studies. Now we know when we will cover the material, so we can plan for labs, trips, etc. This is important if we plan on sharing equipment with other homeschoolers. Also, since we are covering the material according to topics, the pre-made tests of the publisher will be easy to use.

To make it even easier, biology is great do as a family. All of the children can do biology this year, just on different levels. Get your fifth grader a life science book, your seventh grader and the tenth grader a high school biology text, and let the first grader make his own biology notebook. They can all collect leaves, look through the microscope and dissect a fetal pig. Well, maybe not the dissection for the first grader (a third grader could), but they can all put together their own Visible Man or Woman, watch the video on the birth of foals, make field journals of their hikes, and learn the vocabulary of biology. Don’t forget to plan for the biology type activities in clubs like Scouts. There are many merit badge things you can do during biology class and it will count for Scouts, too. The year we covered biology I had two high schoolers, a 6th grader and a 4th grader. Everyone did biology, at his or her own level. Everyone dissected, hiked, collected, identified, labeled, wrote papers, wrote essays, used the microscope, did a science fair project, and read selected chapters and news articles. A lot of this was recorded in the children’s notebooks. Because I did not have to plan different courses, I was able to do a lot more fun things with the children, creating memories we will carry a long time.  It should go without saying that a good course is one that fulfills your goals as well as your students’.  Not every family will do every activity. The notebook can serve another very important function. You can look back and see all of the things you did in the course and be satisfied that you used the time wisely.

In the notebook you can include these sections: vocabulary, questions and exercises, drawings, experiments, tests, leaf collection pages, and journal pages. Vocabulary is a very important part of biology. Once a student has a good understanding of the vocabulary, he is prepared to study the “whys” of what is happening in nature. Even your first grader will learn a lot of vocabulary by participating. Notice how much of this notebook is a record of activities. This is important to biology and critical to keeping the interest of a young person. Plus, by doing the active part of biology and learning the vocabulary, he will understand more of the textbook part.

A textbook will probably be your main reference material although you may use others. A text is not usually written to motivate or to make the topic compelling, so don’t blame a perfectly good text for a boring course. What will make your course interesting is how you use the text. Discuss the readings, argue about it, collect other references like news articles, observe nature and see if you understand or agree with the author. Use the book to give you a framework for the course, not as the eternal guide of wisdom. There is only one Book for that. Exercises and activity sheets are another type of resource; use them. They are great for learning vocabulary. Some even encourage critical thinking and analysis. As in all resources, use what you can and feel free to discard the remainder.

What about the lab part of biology? You have many options.  Your text book may come provided with its own lab portion of the course.  If it does not, or if you are dissatisfied with the lab presentation or the cost of materials, you can put together your own lab course or use Experiences in Biology by Castle Heights Press to accompany the text you are using.  If you have a microscope, plan on doing lots of microscopic experiments. Build a plant press by drilling holes at each corner of two 12 X 12 X 1 inch boards, putting 6 inch bolts through the boards, and using butterfly nuts to secure them. Plastic models of humans or animals can be used to take the place of dissecting. Or you can do both. There are several very nice dissection kits available which have the tools as well as the organisms for a very reasonable price. There are many experiment books you can use for high school level science, just remember that a high school student should be expected to write a detailed conclusion and use measurement to make the experiments more analytical. Another good laboratory is CPR class and a first aid course from the Red Cross. These are all good lab ideas for your biology student.  Refer to the resources list below for some recommended lab sources.

Biology is interesting and fun to do at home. Think about why you are studying biology and what you would study. While you are planning your course, consider these ideas for your biology notebook, textbook, and lab materials. Use what seems good and build your own year of biology.


Books of experiments, how-to-use microscope books, and, kits:

Biology Lab Resource Book by Judith Hancock. This is a good lab book for beginning biology students high school or above. It has classic activities that are designed to teach skills of science such as observation as well as the reasoning of science such as interpreting results. (If you can find it… last publishing was in the mid-eighties.  -ed.)

Experiences in Biology by Kathleen Julicher. A lab manual designed for homeschoolers and small schools, it has an assortment of lab activities. You can choose half of the activities to do for a year’s worth of high school level lab. Answer key included.

A Guide to Biology Lab by Thomas G. Rust. This is a pictorial trip through biology class. It is a great help to see actual photos of the microscopic work and dissections all labeled so that the student can recognize what he is looking at without asking for instructor help.

Laboratory Techniques for High Schools: A Worktext of Biomedical Methods by Gabrielle Edwards and Marion Cimmino. One hundred lab exercises designed to teach or to provide practice in lab techniques used in medical laboratories.

The Microscope: a Buyer’s and Owner’s Guide by Joe Makemson, Jon Slaughter, and Marvin Young. An excellent guide to microscopes in general which parts identified and a glossary for many different types of scopes.

The Microscope and How to Use it by Dr. Georg Stehli.  1970 English edition translated from German, soft cover, 157 pages, b/w illustrations.  Clear instructions and many suggestions for using your student microscope. Buy this one!

Magazines and Software:

Cliff Notes: Biology: This program is pretty fundamental and has most of the topics from high school biology. Missing some detail, it can serve as an alternative way to review some biology, not as a primary text.

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