Biology – Sixth Form

What do you most enjoy teaching?

Mrs Stafford:  I really love teaching the unit on Gas Exchange in Year 12. It is fascinating to me to understand how different living things have such different systems for obtaining oxygen from their environment. We also get to do a lot of practical work including dissections of locusts, fish, hearts and lungs. The first time I saw the breathing system of a locust under a microscope I was blown away by how incredible it was.

Mrs Brailsford:  I have a real passion for microbiology and the diseases that micro-organisms can cause. How a species has evolved to be what it is today is really interesting and particularly important in the current climate. Antibiotic resistance is a major struggle for the biochemists, and the practicals we do in Y12 investigate this and look at the importance of aseptic technique.

Mr Fairhurst:  When I started I loved the unit on DNA and protein synthesis.  It always amazes me how this one molecule, DNA, is common to all life on Earth.  This simple and yet elegant molecule is made from just a few basic parts yet it is responsible for the vast range of biodiversity we see around us on this planet. Its relatively simple structure allows it to be copied easily when cells divide, easily ‘read’ or transcribed before its ‘code’ is used to build the proteins from which all life constructed, and without DNA there would of course be no evolution and we wouldn’t be here in the first place!

What are the differences between Biology at GCSE and A Level ?

At GCSE we often look into concepts very briefly and at A Level you will find that we have barely touched the surface. For example; a GCSE cell would be quite simple with 7 or 8 structures inside it. At A Level we look into the many other organelles that you would find in there each with a specific function. If you learn the content really well at GCSE, you can achieve high marks on your exams.  At A Level this isn’t enough. You need a really good understanding of how one Biology topic relates to another and will need to be able to apply your knowledge to real life investigations in order to explain the results. At A Level you will find that you spend a lot more time delving into concepts in a lot more detail and linking them to lots of other biological ideas.

Can you give us a quick summary of each of the units of work you do?

Biological molecules:  This topic is the first one you will do in Y12 because the understanding of this section on biochemistry provides the foundation for most of the other topics you will study in biology.  All life on Earth from the smallest virus to the largest Blue Whale or tallest Giant Redwood share the same basic biochemistry showing that all life evolved from the same common ancestor(s) thus providing evidence for evolution.  The reason why scientists involved in the search for extra-terrestrial life look for the presence of water is that this basic molecule is fundamental to the building and breakdown of the larger molecules from which life on Earth is made. This unit builds on the work done in GCSE biology and GCSE chemistry.

Cells: Again!! You will have a thorough understanding of cells from KS3 and 4, but at A-level we build upon this and start to make more explicit links between the function of the organelles. We study the cell membrane in detail and how substances are able to move across it. Practicals include extraction of the organelles, an investigation into water potential and fine-tuning your microscopy skills. We also delve into cell replication and how the body defends itself from diseases.

Exchange with environment: You will discover the varied ways that organisms have adapted to exchange substances like oxygen, carbon dioxide, sugars, water and minerals with their environment. You will observe the structures within the heart, lungs, fish gills and insect tracheal systems by performing dissections to help you understand the need for specialised exchange surfaces.

Genetic information: The wonder of DNA and how these instructions are used to synthesise proteins. We study how these instructions can end up with mistakes and the results of them, and how over time they can change. Classification of organisms is also covered and how as humans we are changing the biodiversity of the planet.

Energy transfers: You learned about Photosynthesis and Respiration at GCSE but we barely scratched the surface. Now prepare to be amazed at the details of how each process is actually carried out! Discover the importance of these process in wider ecosystems and find out about how other nutrients are important to the survival of all living things.

Response to change: How does our body detect changes? How are impulses passed around? Why does a muscle contract? Why is Diabetes a problem for the body and the country? These are just some of the areas we look at in Y13. This topic links all the Y12 topics with how as humans we actually survive on a daily basis.

Genetics and populations: Where do we come from? How did the variety of species that live on earth today evolve? How do we know so much about the relationships between living things and their environment? You will find out the answers to these and many more questions. You will get to design and carry out your own investigation into how environmental factors affect the growth of plants either in school or on our field trip to Malham Tarn.

Control of gene expression: What do we know about genes today? How do we know about genes today? You will discover how the advancements in gene technology, most of which have been developed in the last few decades, have contributed to our understanding of how genes control the expression of physical characteristics. You will find out how these technologies are revolutionising agriculture, industry and medicine.

How is Biology different to Chemistry or Physics? 

In Biology we find out about living things from cell to organism, and how organisms interact with their environment. Sometimes students decide on Biology as they enjoyed GCSE and they want to study the subject in more detail. Some students need to study Biology as they need it for a specific university course. The first topic you will do in A Level Biology covers biochemistry of molecules which links with some of the Chemistry work you will do at A Level but you will be taught all the Chemistry knowledge you need through your Biology lessons. There is less Maths content in A Level Biology than Chemistry or Physics.

I’m sure your subject will suit lots of different ‘types’ of student, but are there any characteristics that you think can be useful?

A real passion for Biology is essential. You will spend a lot of time on your Biology work so it is really important that you are as interested and as enthusiastic as us the teachers. 10% of marks in your final exams at A Level will be Maths based so a good level of Maths skills is also required (Grade 6 at GCSE). You will also need your chemistry skills as the molecules, photosynthesis and respiration topics all include biochemistry.

Can you show us some examples of the type of work that students do?

Do you have examples of what previous students have gone on to do in your subject?

  • Zoo and wildlife management
  • Zoology
  • Medicine
  • Midwifery
  • Veterinary Science
  • Biomedical Science
  • Nursing

Comments from some current students:

Maddie Y13 – A-Level Biology is really varied and there is loads of different topics and practicals. It’s all really interesting!! There will definitely be something you like.

Livvy Y13 – My favourite part about Biology is being able to understand life from a gene level to full organisms. I want to do Biomedical Science at Uni and taking Biology A-Level allows me to do that.

Sam Y13 – Biology is such an interesting subject with very detailed topics. The topics we learn about are fun and informative, and we do many great practicals that broaden your understanding of the subject.

James Y13 – It is very interesting to learn about all of the Biology topics and the practicals are a lot of fun.

Olly Y13 – The subject as a whole is really fun. The teachers are helpful and kind. Very good subject!

Y13 student – Biology is so interesting! I really enjoy all the practicals and learning about how different plants and animals work. The teachers are all so knowledgeable and supportive. It’s definitely the best subject!

Autumn – previous student – Biology was a great subject and was also my favourite subject, I found it very enjoyable to learn. Also the help and support we got from the teachers was incredible and a key part to why I loved it so much.

 Some links to click on:

The Specification

An example exam

AQA A Level Biology

A YouTube clip of a concept being explained – Cell transport by the Amoeba sisters – lots more videos where that comes from