Thursday, January 05, 2006

High School Biology

PZ Myers (and others) had a different experience in high school biology than I did. When I first arrived in high school I had aspirations of becoming a screen writer (growing up in Los Angeles does that to you). I took biology in 9th grade (freshman year of high school) and found the class easy, but boring; most science and math classes came easy to me growing up because I realized that if I paid attention in class and did the homework, I was guaranteed a good grade (this actually works all the way through college, but in college the "homework" often consists of reading 100 pages from a textbook every couple of days in each of your courses).

But that was biology in my freshman year of high school. I happened to attend a school that offered a ton of Advance Placement (AP) courses (it was a public school as well, which is a rarity). AP courses, for those of you aren't hip with the lingo, are high school courses designed to be taught at an introductory college level (usually taken in 11th or 12th grade). The premise is that these courses will prepare you for college by allowing you to either test out of an introductory level course in college (by scoring well on the AP exam at the end of the year) or make those introductory courses less challenging by exposing you to more of the material before you arrive at college. I also happened to have very competitive friends in high school, and we considered it a challenge to see who could take the most AP courses and score the best on the exam at the end of the year.

That brings me to the second biology course I took in high school -- the one that got me interested in genetics. I had a great AP biology teacher who had an excellent grasp of the material and could present it very clearly. He was well prepared, and often finished his teaching well within the allotted time allowing us to ask questions and begin on our homework assignments. Prior to taking the class, I viewed science as a stagnant collection of facts (of which, there was not much left to learn), but throughout that year I decided that I wanted to be a scientist. It was during the unit on genetics (there was something about transcription and translation that piqued my interest) that I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD in genetics. I even included this fact in my essays for college applications. A lot of kids apply to college planning on becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but how many enter college with the intent of getting a PhD and know in which field that want to pursue it?

I took AP biology my junior year of high school (11th grade), but I wanted to learn more about biology with one year of high school remaining. Luckily, my AP biology teacher also offered a course in marine biology. He had a close relationship with a marine biology lab at UCLA (he had a masters degree, but I’m not sure if it was in education or biology), which meant we not only had access to specimens for observation and dissection, but we also got to do experiments. I guess this requires another bit of clarification. You see, not only was my high school a public school with good academic facilities, it was also located about five blocks from the Pacific Ocean. That meant we could take monthly field trips to the nearby pier to collect samples, take depth and temperature readings, and study the waves and tidal patterns. We would later analyze our data and observe the specimens we collected in our nets (usually planktonic larvae and crustaceans). We also took a special field trip to tidal pools to observe some of the species we had learned about in class.

I am glad I took AP biology in high school because it meant I did not have to take introductory biology in college. Nowadays, introductory courses are affectionately referred to as “weed out” courses for their notorious ability to eliminate a substantial fraction of freshman students from a particular major. After having been a teaching assistant in introductory biology course as a graduate student, I can confidently say that I’m glad I never had to take such a course as an undergrad. I’m not sure if it’s the impersonal feel of one instructor and hundreds of students, or the absolute rush to cover so many aspects of biology in one semester. Whatever it is, it definitely does not stack up to my AP biology course.


At 4:09 PM, Blogger Darktwin said...

Nice to hear that your college accepted AP credit. Some schools do and some don't. I went to a small liberal arts school that let my cash in my credits for US History, Lit, and Bio. My twin bro went to a different liberal arts school within the same consortium, and they wouldn't take any of them. Schools are very fickle with that sort of thing. And yes, Intro sciences are a bitch.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger cpbvk said...

I went to public school in Utah. The final two hours of each of my 12th grade school days was spent in an excellent AP biology course. In 9th grade (last year of jr. high) I took a biology class that was intended for high-achievers planning to go into the life sciences. Our teacher (who actually was a damned nice guy) taught us, among other insane things, that the earth was 13,000 years old.


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