Life Science—Biology Concept and Skill Progressions

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(1) Within the following conceptual stepping stones, the following National Science Standards (NAP, 1996) must be integrated into lessons at the various grade levels: 1. Science as inquiry; 2. Unifying concepts and processes in science, such as structure and function relationship in chemistry, life science, and physics or the concept as randomness; and 3. Science in personal and social perspectives. Science in personal and social perspectives can include health and wellness issues tied into anatomy and physiology.

(2) It is also important to provide a science in personal and social perspective to this topic (link to Health and Wellness Framework). Children assign illness to germs but they don’t know the difference between contagious and non-contagious diseases. Washing hands can wash away germs (personal hygiene). Children understand that some foods are healthy and some foods are not and if you eat too much you gain fat which is not healthy. Use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are unhealthy behavior. Students should understand basic hygiene and safety measures. They also should learn that certain behaviors such as eating healthy foods and exercise are important to growth and development and other behaviors are not healthy and can inhibit growth and development. These ideas can be integrated with the other human biology core ideas. Students should learn how to stay healthy and well and also they should be able to inform their community about how to be healthy.

(3) It is essential that students recognize that understanding physiological systems requires the ability to think causally (in terms of chains of cause-and-effect relationships). Mathematic models can be used (for example, cardiac output depends on Stroke Volume and Heart Rate: CO=SV x HR).

(4) Usually a phrase used by parents.

(5) Contraction of skeletal muscles does not depend on extracellular calcium ion concentration.

Authors and Reviewers

Dr. Joel Michael, Rush Medical College, Illinois (contributor)

Dr. Ann Wright, Canisius College, New York (contributor)

Dr. Harold Model, Bastyr University, Washington (reviewer)


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Arnaudin, M. W. and Mintzes, J. J. (Feb, 1986). The cardiovascular system: Children’s conceptions and misconceptions. Science and Children, 58-51.

Biology Misconceptions (Revised July 1998). At

Duit, Reinders has maintained a website for many years that contains the most comprehensive bibliography of student misconceptions in science (all disciplines). It can be found at

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Michael, J. (2007). What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a faculty survey. Advances in Physiology Education, 31:34-40.

Michael, J., Modell, H., McFarland, J, and Cliff, W. (2009). The “core principles” of physiology what should students understand? Advances in Physiology Education, 33:10-16.

Mintzes, J. J., Trowbridge, J. E., Arnaudin, M., and Wandersee, J. H. (1991). Children’s biology: Studies on conceptual development in the life sciences. In Glynn, Yeany, and Britton (eds)., The psychology of learning science (pp. 179-202). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wright, A. n.d., Unpublished research.

Wright, A., and Bork. (2010) Unpublished research.

Concept & Skill Progression for Cell Biology & Biochemistry
The progression is organized in four core ideas: that cellular Structures are made of biologically important molecules: DNA, protein, carbohydrates, and lipids; that proteins play a central role in the structure and function of cells; that the cell is the fundamental structural and functional unit of living things; that there are a variety of sub-cellular parts that have specific structures and do specific functions for the cell. There are two significant implications of this progression: first, to truly understand and develop cell theory and biochemical understandings of living organisms, students must develop a decent atomic molecular theory prior to covering these biology topics in high school; and second, that the role of proteins have to be emphasized and elaborated, which means introducing some basic concepts about protein structure and function in middle school.

Initial Ideas

Before instruction students are likely to know about protein, fat, and sugar as food. They know that all life requires food and has a role in providing energy, but they don’t know the role it plays in cellular building materials. Students often have difficulty distinguishing the difference between cells, molecules and atoms and recognizing that living organisms or cells are made of molecules. Students have some understanding that something inherent in living things makes them different from non-living things and can identify many living things from non-living things. They may not recognize that bacteria are cells or that they have DNA. Students likely believe plants are living, however they may anthropomorphize plants. A particularly strong misconception is that plants take in food (from the soil) as opposed to generating their own food through photosynthesis. Most students know that parents produce babies and that reproduction appears to be common to all animals but may not apply reproduction to all organisms.
Conceptual Stepping Stones

Middle school students recognize that living cells and the subcomponents are comprised of molecules. Students realize proteins are molecules that have specific shapes and identify the importance of proteins in carrying out the work of cells. Students describe DNA as a long chain molecule packed inside of cells that have a role in influencing traits. Students can explain that individual cells carry out all the basic functions of any living thing. They will have difficulty, however, moving between different levels of biological organization (e.g., cell to tissue to organ to system). Students often confuse the relationship between a cell, a nucleus and biological molecule like proteins and DNA. Students realize that includes only proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and can explain that food is used as both a source of energy and building materials in organisms. They realize that plants produce their own food and animals must take it in by eating other organisms. Students can describe the mitochondrion as a cell structure where energy is released and transformed into chemical energy that the cell can use later. They understand that plants undertake photosynthesis to produce food (glucose), but sometimes confuse the process of photosynthesis and respiration, particularly in plants. Students can explain that all organisms need to reproduce (replicate), including single-celled organisms like bacteria.
Culminating Scientific Ideas

High school students describe the basic molecular structures and primary functions of the four major categories of organic molecules (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, nucleic acids). They can describe lipids as being long carbon-hydrogen chains that allow control of the flow of substances into and out of the cell. They can explain the central role that proteins play in carrying out many of the basic functions that cells must undergo to survive and provide examples of some basic types of proteins and their basic functions. Students realize proteins are built inside of cells and perform critical functions inside of cells. They recognize that proteins can act as an enzyme and that the structure of an enzyme is critical to its function. Students can explain that in all organisms, genes in DNA provide instructions for the assembly of proteins and influence what proteins are present and how they function. They can draw sub-cellular organelles found inside a plant and animal cell, and relate those organelles to their functions. Students can predict what would happen if one of these structures was removed or ablated. They can compare and contrast, at the cellular level, the general structures and degrees of complexity of prokaryotes and eukaryotes and predict what structures one would find if looked at under the microscope. Students can compare and contrast a virus and a cell. They can identify the reactants, products, and basic purposes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration and explain the interrelated nature of these in the cells of photosynthetic organisms. They can describe how ATP is generated when food substances are broken down and is used by proteins to perform work inside of cells. Students can describe the cell cycle and the process of mitosis and explain the role of mitosis in the formation of new cells. Students can describe how the process of meiosis occurs and is able to explain the importance of this process in sexual reproduction. They can compare and contrast mitosis and meiosis in terms of the number of chromosomes (at the beginning and ending) and the types of cells in which these processes occur.

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