Scope and Sequence in my Biology Class

scope and sequence blog post-01

Recently, blog readers have asked me to write about scope and sequence in my biology class.  Determining the best scope and sequence for your students is very difficult as a new teacher.  It’s so hard to know!  What do I cover?  When?  And to what depth?  I have found that my own personal preferred scope and sequence develop over time as I teach. In this blog entry, I’ll try to touch on my own scope and sequence.  I hope that this is helpful to the new biology teachers out there who might get a general idea of how long each unit takes.  I know this would have helped me when I started!  The sequence that I teach is pretty specific.  The scope depends on the course I’m teaching (honors? college prep? inclusion?).


How do I determine which unit comes first in biology?  Here is my sequence and some scope information below. I am for 1 lab a week, but that may depend on time, school schedule, and lab material availability.  I post some lab ideas below and I hope to go more in depth into labs in my blog in future posts.


Biology Course Sequence:  This is the course sequence I use.  To new teachers, this may be different for your school or state’s requirements, but this is what I do in southern New Jersey:



Introduction to Life, Measurement, and the Scientific Method (approx. 3 weeks) : This really is a catch-all sort of unit that goes over the basics that every science course should really cover.  How to design an experiment.  How to measure using lab measurement tools.  What’s a hypothesis?  I like to do some basic labs in this unit to help students get on the same page, whatever their science background.  I also discuss the characteristics of life, the basic domains of life, prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and basic classification (scientific names

Labs for scientific method unit: Termite Experiment Design lab,, Measurements Lab (a basic metric system review and measuring volume, length, mass practice lab), and other activities if time allows.  I introduce lab report section writing and I have my students learn slowly throughout the year. 


Biochemistry (approx. 2 weeks): Yep, I teach biochemistry first.  I have a whole blog post about how I teach biochemistry.  I teach this first because I really truly believe that for students to truly understand biology, they need to know what living things are made of.  What more basic question is there?  I focus on water and the 4 macromolecules of life in this unit.  If my students need it, I spend some time on basic chemistry (what’s an atom, molecule, covalent bond, hydrogen bond, etc). The amount that I go into each molecule depends on my students’ readiness and their understanding level.  My bestselling beads and pipe cleaners activities are truly the backbone of the unit in my classroom.  I can’t imagine teaching without them.  I know that some teachers think this unit is too difficult to put first, but if you teach it slowly and with hands-on activities, it isn’t too hard for the first unit.

Labs for biochemistry: Detecting Macromolecules Lab (using lab reagents to detect macromolecules in food), Water Properties Lab (I use stations to have students examine different properties of water.)


Cells & Organelles (approx. 3 weeks): After students understand what molecules living things are made of, I focus in my cells unit on how those molecules come together to form cells.  Life is compartmentalized and we talk about parallels between organelle relationships and a town or city analogy.  I often don’t spend a ton of time in this unit, because all of my students have always had a lot in 7th grade on cells and they usually remember a lot of it!  I use a lot of diagram coloring pages.  I do focus a lot on a big theme (structure and function and how they’re related) and I’ve done a few different projects.  This is my favorite project for this unit.

Labs for cells and organelles: we use the microscope a lot in this unit.  I usually do one lab where they learn how to use the microscope, one lab where they examine slides of bacterial, animal, and plant cells, and another lab where we examine pond water organisms.


Cell Transport (approx. 3 weeks):  Now that students know that living things are made of molecules, organized into cells and cellular compartments, how do living things get NEW atoms and molecules to replace the ones they have or grow?  Cell transport can be a really difficult topic to teach and I have a blog entry about it.  It’s a tough topic for some kids but I love it.  It’s one of my favorites because I use a ton of animations and I have a ton of diagram coloring pages that I use with my students.  Visuals are KEY.

Lab ideas for cell transport:  Traditional diffusion lab with dialysis tubing (I actually don’t like this lab a lot because students always get confused when I say it’s NOT just like a cell membrane).  I also like to do an onion cell (or water plant Elodea cells) lab where students examine cells before and after adding salty water to them, to see osmosis in action in a living cell.  It doesn’t always work really well and it depends on strong microscope skills.


Cell Energetics (approx 4 weeks): In this unit, I teach what are sort of like 3 mini-units – Enzymes, Respiration, and then Photosynthesis.  This unit is also typically difficult for a lot of students, so the scope can change dramatically, based on the level I am teaching.  I like to cover a lot about enzymes, because understanding lock-and-key, substrate-enzyme specificity, and how enzymes are regulated with inhibitors and activators comes in handy later in the DNA/RNA/Protein unit.  This unit’s basic question is: how do living things get their energy?  It works well to follow after the units where students learn what living things are made of and how they get their new atoms and molecules.  In teaching respiration and photosynthesis, I do NOT require them to memorize steps or molecule pictures.  I do require them to understand the general process: that respiration is the breakdown of glucose into carbon dioxide and water, using oxygen, and that there are 3 sub-processes within respiration that make that happen.  I use cut-and-paste diagrams and coloring activities in class and have my students answer questions in groups.  In my upper level classes, they do learn a few more details.  I focus on the enzymes and the process and how the cell reaches its goal (ATP!).  For more details, you can read my blog entry on teaching photosynthesis and respiration.

Lab ideas for photosynthesis and respiration: During this unit, I like to do an enzyme lab (fresh liver plus hydrogen peroxide reaction, with different factors they change like temperature, pH) and I like to do a fermentation lab (students put yeast and different sugar solutions into test tubes and observe gas collecting in a balloon attached to the top of the test tube).  Another lab that works well is a lab where students discover that plants also do respiration, using bean sprouts (from the grocery store!) and a pH indicator to show the pH of the water changes as respiration takes place.


Cell Division (approx. 3 weeks): Now that students understand what living things are made of (biochem and cells), they understand how cells get their new molecules (cell transport) and their energy (cell energetics), students can learn how you get new cells… from old cells!  Usually many of my students remember some of mitosis from middle school, at least the basic idea.  Here is where I focus on chromosomes, what they are, why they’re important, and how they get from one cell into two cells.  I introduce inheritance in this unit, that chromosomes are passed down from generation to generation.  I do have them memorize mitosis and meiosis phase names, but this doesn’t seem too difficult for them, at least that’s what I’ve found.  I focus on the differences between mitosis and meiosis, how one is used for somatic cells and one is used for reproductive cells.  Pictures are essential for this unit and I wrote a blog post about teaching this unit.  Animations are amazing to use in this unit.  A lot of students really love this unit too!  With more advanced students, I go into crossing over and how this increases genetic diversity.  This unit, especially understanding meiosis, sets up students to succeed in the genetics unit.

Lab ideas for cell division: I like to have my students do a video project that they can work in on class.  My students also do a recognizing-mitotic-cells under the microscope lab (with onion root tip cells), and sometimes an extension on this where students calculate the length of each mitotic phase based on how many cells they see in each phase.


DNA/RNA/Protein Synthesis (approx. 3 weeks): Now that students understand how cells come from old cells, they can learn about chromosomes at a smaller scale level, how DNA replication and RNA and protein synthesis occur.  (I can totally see moving this unit before Cell Division if you wanted to.  I like it here, because it leads well into Genetics.)  I go over DNA replication first, then Transcription, then Translation.  I do a lot of cut-and-paste activities, so that students can really see the process!  In this unit,   This is also a great place to do a mini-unit on biotechnology.  

Lab ideas for protein synthesis: (if I have the equipment) gel electrophoresis, restriction enzymes and gel electrophoresis, human cheek DNA isolation or strawberry DNA isolation


Genetics (approx. 4 weeks): Genetics is my favorite unit to teach.  In this unit, the goal is for students to understand why organisms within a population are different, how they are different, and what determines the traits we inherit.  I love it and most of my students do too.  I spend a TON of time in this unit.  I do activities that help students understand chromosomes, genes, and alleles are related to each other.  I focus on concepts like dominant alleles and recessive alleles and how they relate to each other.  One unique concept I focus on is how alleles and mutations in alleles affect proteins (which isn’t covered in most biology textbooks).  One problem I have with the traditional high school genetics unit is the focus on “incomplete dominance” and “co-dominance”.  In real genetics, scientists don’t determine whether a gene’s alleles act in an “incomplete dominance” pattern or “co-dominance” pattern.  In real genetics, scientists focus on what the allele is actually producing – the polypeptide!  I do introduce all of the inheritance patterns to my students because they will see it in questions on tests and in college classes (simple dominance, sex-linked, incomplete, co-dominance, mitochondria inheritance) but I tell them that real genetics focuses less on names of patterns.  In my more advanced classes, I also cover epistasis, multiple gene traits, and other more complicated genetics concepts.  This really depends on my classes that year and whether they can handle it or not.

Lab ideas for genetics: when I have the resources, fruit flies!!!!!!!!!!  Fruit flies is a huge time investment and it takes at least 3 (sometimes 4 if the flies aren’t growing fast enough) lab weeks to do it justice (1: collecting and setting up matings, 2: observing F1 progeny and setting up the second mating, 3: counting F2 progeny (I have them count 100 flies!))  But it is the lab the students remember for years to come and I love giving them the chance to do “real” genetics in my class.


Evolution (approx. 2 weeks): This unit works really well after genetics.  Evolution is really about how population genetics of organisms change over time.  I start with Hardy Weinberg equilibrium, because that ties very directly into genetics and shows how evolution occurs over time in populations.  You may think that the math is too difficult for students to complete, but I use this activity I designed, one that requires only calculating averages!  After understanding microevolution, my students learn about Lamarck, Darwin, and newer evolutionary theories (punctuated equilibrium etc).  We go over evidence for evolution (and a few pieces of evidence that scientists don’t yet understand).  Natural selection is one of the huge concepts that I hit hard in this unit (I actually mention it a lot all year).

Lab ideas for evolution: I love to do a bacterial antibiotic resistance lab (when I have the resources) and a simulation where students examine change over time in a population.  I’ve done several things (a bird beak simulation, a candy natural selection simulation) but i’m always looking for a better idea here!


Ecology (approx. 2 weeks): Once students know what living things are made of, how living things make more living things, and how living things in populations change over time, I tie it all together with Ecology.  Ecology is really the culmination of my standard biology year.  Students learned about how populations change in the evolution unit.  Now they learn how populations in communities affect each other and how these cause change to the planet over time.  In this unit, I talk about biomes, producers vs consumers, and community relationships (symbiosis, competition, predation, etc).  I find this to be one of the easiest units of the year and this works well for my class because in New Jersey, we have a standardized test right after this unit, a test that covers all 10 of these units I’ve mentioned so far.

Lab ideas for ecology: If the school allows, I love to take the students outside of this unit.  We examine parts of plants, take wildlife surveys if we can and time allows.


The rest of the year (whatever time we have left!): Because of timing, I may or may not cover other units at the end of the year.  I love to do a unit on Bacteria, Viruses, and Immunology here.  In some years, I’ve had time to go into major body systems like the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system.  This changes from year to year.  Lab ideas: In the most recent school I worked at, we all did a huge fetal pig dissection at the end of the year to follow a unit on major body systems.  I can be honest with you all: dissections are NOT my favorite. 🙂  But I do them because a lot of students learn from them and love them.


So there you have it, my scope and sequence for high school biology.  How do you teach biology differently?  What works best for you?  I love to hear about different teaching strategies, so please leave me a comment below!


If you are looking for a comprehensive homework bundle (for the whole year, all 10 of my units!), check it out here!  

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