Hands-on Activities for Teaching Biology to High School and Middle School Students

 The expression "hands-on, minds-on" summarizes the philosophy we have incorporated in these activities -- namely, that students will learn best if they are actively engaged and if their activities are closely linked to understanding important biological concepts. For example, it is helpful to use hands-on models to engage student interest and foster multiple modality learning, but it is crucial to closely link the modeling activity to student understanding of the actual biological processes. Many of our activities are somewhat similar to other versions available elsewhere on the Web or in print (as indicated in our acknowledgments), but the hands-on, minds-on versions offered here generally have a greater focus on linking the activity to student understanding and learning of important biological concepts.

Our activities cover a broad range of biological topics. They are listed in one possible effective sequence for learning biology. The introductory activities help students to learn about the characteristics of life, metabolism, organic compounds, diffusion and osmosis, and experimental method. The mitosis, meiosis and fertilization activity is closely linked to the basic genetics activity, since understanding of the behavior of chromosomes during meiosis and fertilization provides the basis for understanding genetics. Three additional genetics activities provide options for more in-depth learning concerning genetics. The two molecular biology activities can be used in sequence to teach students about the structure and function of DNA and RNA, including how the genes in DNA provide the instructions for making proteins. The topics for the next group of activities include evolution by natural selection, exponential growth of populations, and introductions to plant and invertebrate diversity. The last group of activities is concerned with several aspects of human physiology, and the heart rate activity provides another opportunity to reinforce student understanding of scientific method.

Most of these activities can be carried out with minimum equipment and expense for supplies. In the Teacher Preparation Notes we suggest sources where needed equipment and supplies can be purchased at a reasonable price.

We often revise our activities to improve student learning, based on our teaching experience and suggestions from the middle school and high school teachers we work with and other users of this website. If an activity is new or has been significantly improved within the last 12 months, the name of the activity is followed by the date of the current version.  

We encourage you to use our Word files to modify the Student Handouts to optimize learning for your students. For example, some of the questions in the Student Handouts are followed by information that essentially answers the preceding question, and you may want to omit this material from the Student Handouts if you prefer to use classroom discussion to convey this material. Also, you may want to incorporate some of the suggestions and additional material from the Teacher Preparation Notes.

We invite you to use the Comments link below for general comments or the comments links for each activity to add your suggestions, questions or comments. If you prefer, you can send a private message to iwaldron@sas.upenn.edu.

Ingrid Waldron is Professor Emerita in the Biology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer Doherty is a post-doctoral researcher of science education at Michigan State University. They have developed hands-on, minds-on biology activities for grades 6-12 in collaboration with colleagues at Penn and K-12 teachers. 

We appreciate past support for Jennifer Doherty from a School District of Philadelphia Mathematics and Science Partnerships sub-award and from an NSF GK-12 grant to the University of Pennsylvania.  We are grateful to Craig Douglas for his generous help with graphics. 

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