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Published: Thursday, August 30, 2018

Back to School, Back to Biology

Returning in September is usually a whirlwind mixture of preparation, excitement, a touch of melancholy for the summer past and even a hint of apprehension at the prospect of new A-Level groups.


This can be the case if you are something of an old hand or, even, a newly qualified teacher about to embrace the rewards and challenges of teaching Sixth Form Biology for the first time.


By way of an introduction to the course, and an attempt to put the students at ease by giving them a taster of what lies ahead, I usually begin with a ‘Five Element’ exercise. This can be used as a starter but can extend to cover the bulk of a lesson or even form part of a homework exercise.


Suggest to your charges that they list the ‘Top 5’ most important chemical elements in biology: in life itself.

It should allow them to draw on GCSE knowledge and allow you to extend into what may be the first topics on your course namely, Cells and Biomolecules which BIOZONE can provide you with some fantastic resources for.

My top five, which I would defend most fiercely, are CARBON, HYDROGEN, OXYGEN, NITROGEN and PHOSPHORUS (in no particular order.)


Students will often plump for C, H and O this gives the opportunity to talk about CARBOHYDRATES, LIPIDS, WATER AND CARBON DIOXIDE, amongst others.


The inclusion of nitrogen brings in PROTEINS and PROTEIN STRUCUTRE, ENZYMES, HAEMOGLOBIN, COLLAGEN, KERATIN, HORMONES, ACTIN and MYOSIN and so on. NITRATES for plants and the NITROGEN CYCLE can also feature as the discussion gathers momentum.


Underrated PHOSPHORUS is often overlooked but by cajoling your team you should be able to inspire them to talk about ATP, DNA, and RNA.


If the opportunities to talk about ACTIVE TRANSPORT, MUSCLE CONTRACTION, MITOCHONDRIA, the NUCLEUS, GENES and PROTEIN SYNTHESIS do not suffice then perhaps the PHOSPHOLIPID BILAYER and ENDOSYMBIONT THEORY may warrant attention or a gentle introduction?


If this exercise is going well, I often find it that it does, why not extend it further? Which element would feature at ‘number 6’ for the students?


How well could they defend its position? Could they argue against the suggested ‘Top 5?’ What would be their ‘Top 10’ and how would they arrive at these suggestions?


Below, I include some previous suggestions and possible ways to dip into material that will be discovered as time progresses. I have drawn these from ideas put forward from colleagues and students alike but there are no ‘hard and fast answers.’ Only having a ‘Top 10’ is difficult and my list extends to 12. Additions are welcome and should add, further, to the debate. 

Element Possible discussion topics
Calcium bones/teeth/shells/muscle contraction/neurotransmitter stimulation
Iron ´╗┐haemoglobin/quaternary structure/buffers/haemocyanin
Sodium nerve impulses/ plant minerals/ salt balance/ osmoregulation
Chloride Cystic Fibrosis and mucus production, Cholera/ Bohr Effect and chloride shift
Magnesium chlorophyll production and Photosynthesis/ enzyme co-factors
Sulphur disulphide bridges in proteins
Potassium nerve impulses/ plant minerals.

In conclusion, I remind nervous students that biology is fundamentally simple but those building blocks can give rise to the most complex creatures on earth. Which is what makes biology amazing and though-provoking. Enjoy the debate and enjoy the rest of the term. Good luck!


John Blair
Head of Biology
The Manchester Grammar School

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