Rethinking AP Biology

A new Advanced Placement biology curriculum makes students think like scientists.

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David Knuffke is an AP biology teacher at Deer Park High School in Deer Park, N.Y.

I have been teaching AP biology for 6 years and initially, my students' lab experiences revolved around a dozen prescribed, highly scripted activities. These activities, which many of my colleagues in the world of AP Biology commonly referred to as the "dirty dozen," provided students with a range of laboratory experiences that are, barring instructional error, essentially guaranteed to succeed. And what could be wrong with that?

From a scientific standpoint, pretty much everything. Real science is not an experience that gives simple answers to rote questions. Real science is much messier than that. The answers to scientific questions are tentative and often incorrect. In fact, failures often outnumber successes. While these labs illustrated key laws and principles, the scientific process was missing.

But things are about to change. For the past few years, the College Board has been working to redesign the AP biology curriculum. It is a process that will culminate in a redesigned course and exam taking effect in the fall of 2012. I am preparing my course for the changes to come. This year, my students will still take the current AP exam. But in anticipation of the course redesign, I have already changed the focus of my labs.

I have stopped giving my students step-by-step instructions for how to achieve a successful outcome. I serve as a coach of the scientific process and provide them with materials, methods, mentoring, and supervision. Want to see how temperature affects the rate of an enzymatic reaction? How about pH? How about the source of the enzyme? Sure thing. But the students must figure out how to do it. My students research their own questions, construct their own hypotheses, conduct their own experiments, and present their findings to their peers. A lab that might have taken two days in the old mode can easily occupy a week or more in the new scheme.

This requires a bit of a shift on my part. Science teachers are notorious for wanting to do particular things in particular ways. We often are tempted to look at a student protocol, tear it apart, and rebuild it in the image of what we consider the "better" way of doing things. (That's why we were the kids you wanted as your lab partner.) In this model, I remain on the sidelines, like any good coach, giving guidance and answering questions to make sure the students have the knowledge and tools they need. I often have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from intruding on my students' learning process. And, if you can't see my hands in lab, it's because I'm sitting on them.

The course redesign will help me with these changes. My students will still be required to spend 25 percent of their class time in the lab. But the old lab manual will be gone, and a new lab manual of inquiry-based activities is taking its place. The new manual provides experiences that teachers can use to meet AP's new lab requirements, but those of us who are more inclined to adapt our own course labs are similarly encouraged to do so. Since inquiry-based labs take more time, the minimal number of required labs is being reduced from 12 to eight, although the overall time students must spend in the lab does not change. Aside from the changes to the lab, the new course will require coverage of fewer topics, allowing me and other teachers to delve into concepts in greater depth.

Certainly, things are changing. And change can bring uneasiness. I see this in my students, who are, for the first time, being given the opportunity to fail in their labs. But I do not see this as a problem. Here, in the 21st century, where students need to be competitive in the global economy, a "failed" lab experience--where students are demonstrating the critical thinking needed to investigate a problem from inception through conclusion--is a greater success than following a script could ever be.

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