Doing Biology with AP* Biology Teachers

Peggy Skinner’s APSI crew

The College Board (the non-profit administrator of the Advanced Placement program) regularly sponsors special Summer Institutes for high school AP teachers.  These week-long, discipline-specific professional development workshops – or APSIs, as they are called – are a tremendous opportunity for instructors to dig deeply into their AP course, run through resource material, learn new methods, reflect on their own course, and get their questions answered.  They are also a wonderful opportunity to network with other educators, teaching the same course, and learn from each other.

While always popular, this summer’s APSI offerings for biology educators are particularly well attended because of the brand-spankin’ new AP Biology Curriculum Framework published by the College Board in February 2011.  High school teachers around the country are being asked to rethink their course, in light of the new framework, and submit a syllabus to the College Board for audit.  Failure to comply with the requirements means that your high school could no longer call the course “Advanced Placement” and that students enrolled would not be eligible to take the AP exam or carry AP credit on their transcript.  Given the AP program’s popularity in United States high schools, the stakes are pretty high.

Peggy Skinner (left) and Allison Kittay (right) master facilitators.

In July, I had the good fortune to attend an AP Biology Summer Institute in Menlo Park, California.  There were two concurrent sessions, each with 30 high school biology teachers.  AP Biology veteran teachers, Peggy Skinner and Allison Kittay, facilitated the workshops.  The attending teachers were mostly from California, with a few from other western states and one from a high school in Shanghai, China.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Peggy and Allison so graciously invited me to attend their workshops as an observer.  The opportunity to listen to teachers and hear about their courses and their students was certainly high on my list of reasons to attend.  I also hoped that I would gain some insights into the new curriculum myself.  Though I have spent time examining the document and learning the terminology (Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, Essential Knowledge, Learning Objectives, and Science Practices), I still didn’t feel I’d yet wrapped my mind around it.

We started out the first (of five!) day with a trip around the lab room, as each teacher shared where they were from, how long they’ve been teaching AP Bio, and what they hoped to get out of the week ahead.  Their comments were revealing…

“I’m worried about the audit. How can I make sure my course is approved?”

“I’m concerned about the math that now seems to be required, whether or not my students can handle it.”

“Between my district being furloughed and the required exam prep, I just don’t think I will have enough to time to fit it all in.”

“I’m nervous about the new labs.”

“I don’t have time to completely re-make my course.”

“I’ve spent time gathering resources from other people, but now I feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to look at and evaluate.  Plus I want to make sure that the course I teach is my course.”

“ I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, if someone else has this figured out, I’m happy to use their materials.”

“I have IB and AP students in the same class, how can I make that work?”

“I’m worried about the exam.  The sample questions we’ve seen are very difficult and I’m not sure my students will be able to do well.”

“Where are the resources to help us with these data analysis questions?

“The textbooks I have are 8 years old and there is no money for new ones.”

“Where will I get the materials for the new labs – my school has no money to buy lab kits.”

“How can I convert my existing exam questions to reflect the sort of thing that my students will encounter on the exam?”

I found it particularly interesting that most of the participants were experienced AP teachers – many of whom were veteran APSI attendees.  The concerns about the new course were palpable, even among those veterans.

Allison and Peggy did an amazing job explaining, reassuring, and grappling with questions.  They patiently explained the philosophical underpinnings of the new course direction as they infused the week with a level of excitement over the possibilities.  As Peggy Skinner put it, “This is an exciting time to be teaching AP Bio, this new curriculum is all about how to do science.”

And “doing science” is precisely what they did.  Over the course of the week these hearty teachers got their fingers blue (FastBlast stain in the Gel Electrophoresis lab) and their minds on fire while they worked through the recommended labs for the course.  With each lab, the emphasis was to first get the techniques and methods down and then open the lab up for inquiry possibilities… What questions could students ask?  How might it go wrong and how to figure out why?  How could the lab be extended?  As each new wrinkle or question came up, Peggy and Allison kept everyone in the right mindset by asking the participants, “How would this inform your teaching?”.  Here are a few photos of the teacher participants, working hard to examine the labs and incorporate them into their own design:

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Over the course of the five days we did many labs, tried out sample exam questions,  reviewed all the College Board online resources, talked about the audit, and mapped out the connections between Big Ideas, Learning Objectives, and Science Practices. Here is an example of a Big Idea map:

Teacher-created map for Big Idea #3

Katie shares an idea for helping students understand cladograms.

One of the many wonderful elements of a week like this comes from shared ideas and activities between teachers. There were hundreds of years of teaching experience among these teachers and they were all eager to share what works for them.  You could feel the energy in the room spike as each good strategy was shared.  Like this video of Chris, explaining an activity he came up with using wine corks to help students understand natural selection.

Take home lessons stacked up over the course of the week, with the sure-footed sensibility that experienced and resilient teachers always seem to manage.  These were the important meta messages that stood out to me:

  • To be curious and ask good questions, you need to be an expert….kids need to be an expert on some aspect of each lab in order to make them work.  So try starting with a skill that they master, to the unknown, to the formulation of a question.
  • Talk with your pre-AP teachers (9th grade biology) about how to prepare students for the AP Biology course ahead.
  • We are facing a 3-5 year transition here – it won’t happen all at once.
  • There are eight labs, each one requires 2-3 days,  and at least 25% of your course time should be spent doing labs.  There are fewer labs in the revised course, but each one requires more time and each one provides opportunity for inquiry.  Spread them out throughout the year.
  • It’s very important to have your own identify when you teach this course. How will you excite the students?  What interests and drives you?
  • There are College Board recommendations, but there are also school preferences and cultures – each teacher has to balance these.
  • The exam will definitely be more data-driven.  AP Biology students will, for the first time, bring calculators to the exam.  There will a master sheet of formulas given.  Practice with interpreting data and calculations is a good plan.
  • “E2/I2” is a good handle to keep in mind. Evolution.  Energy. Information.  Interactions.
  • Examine where most of the LO’s fall and think about that in light of your curriculum plan.  For example, Big Idea 3 has 50 LO’s – twice as many as Big Idea 4.
  • The exam will text essential knowledge with specific science practices.  Students will have to show what they know through what they do.
  • Look for places in the year, specific activities, that will help students make a connection between Big Ideas – this will help students build a network.

It was an exciting and fascinating week — and I was so grateful to be there, learning along with everyone else.

*AP is a trademark of the College Board

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1 Comment

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One response to “Doing Biology with AP* Biology Teachers

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