Introduction and Table of Contents

Here’s my week-by-week guide to Unit 1 of AP Bio. I’m following this scope and sequence. Please feel free to email me for ideas, support, or to set up a time to talk one-to-one.

  1. Week 1: Course opening, Key Themes, Natural Selection
  2. Week 2: Properties of Water, Standard Error
  3. Week 3: Biochemistry Part 1 (Monomers and Polymers, Carbohydrates, Lipids)
  4. Week 4: Proteins and Nucleic Acids

Week 1: Course Opening, Key Themes of Biology, Understanding Natural Selection

Your first week of AP Bio! Beginnings are important, so this week, I’ll walk you through each day.

During the first week, you should try to accomplish a few things.

  1. Connect with your students. You’re about to take your students on a hero’s journey. They’re going to face obstacles, overcome all types of difficulties, and come out of this with a radically transformed version of life. You’re the guide. In this first week, you want to set the tone, and get your students inspired.
  2. Teach the Big Picture (the College Board’s Four Big Ideas)  This provides a cognitive scaffold that reduces fragmentation and which makes the learning more meaningful.
  3. Teach natural selection. Evolution is the most important idea in biology. Start teaching it now.
  4. Set up/communicate your basic procedures and policies. That includes getting your students registered on, Google Classroom (or whatever LMS you use).

Objectives for Week 1 (Key Themes, Natural and Artificial Selection, Adaptation)

The College Board’s original objectives for natural and artificial selection are in Topics 7.1 – 7.3. I teach to these objectives in the first week of the course because they’re the most important ideas in biology, and set the stage for everything else. Note that if you follow the previous link, you’ll go to my condensed version of the College Board’s Course and Exam Description. Click here for the College Board’s pdf. I’ve added an additional objective about the four key ideas.

Students will be able to

  1. List and describe the four key themes of AP Biology (evolution, information flow, energy and matter flow, systems and systems interactions).
  2. Define what an adaptation is, and list examples.
  3. Explain how humans use artificial selection/selective breeding to bring about desired traits in populations.
  4. Explain how natural selection works to bring about adaptations.

Day 1: Connect, Introduce Yourself, and Introduce Course Themes/Big Ideas

Beginnings are important. During this first week, my goals are to

  • Connect with my students.
  • Inspire them for the journey ahead.
  • Show them that I’ll be a competent guide on this journey by offering a well-structured, efficient, and fun first lesson.

I organize the flow of my lesson using slideshows. Here’s a link to the one I’m using for the first week of this year. Note that for about as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve taught my students a class cheer that goes “B-I-O-L-O-G-Y: That’s our classes Battle Cry!” This didn’t work over Zoom during the pandemic, but that’s the energy I’m trying to bring (and which I hope to bring back this year).

Then I talk for just a little bit about me. I keep this to about 5 minutes. I’m just trying for a bit of personalization. One thing I share is how, about 15 years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to live in Argentina with my family. While in Argentina, I noticed how the constellation Orion is upside down compared to what we see in North America. Why do I tell this story? Because, in addition to allowing me to share just a little bit about myself (I’m a dad, I speak Spanish, etc.), I share how this experience (seeing Orion upside down) changed my perspective, making me think differently about my existence on this planet.  I’m hoping, similarly, that the experience my students have in AP Biology is going to shift their perspective, and help them think about themselves in a deeper, bigger, more meaningful way.

Next, I put on my motivational speaker hat. AP Bio is a hard course. Our students are facing a big challenge. I’m going to try to inspire them throughout this journey, and Day 1 is the time to start. I present AP Bio as a hero’s journey in which the students are the heroes, and I’m their guide. Note that while I’ll mention the pandemic and SARS-CoV-2 (and I’ll bring it in a lot during the course of the year)  I’m going to save teaching about the virus for later. I just don’t want to do it during the first few days (because the pandemic has been traumatic for many students, and I want to build more trust before teaching about it). At the same time, based on my experience last year, students are intensely interested in the biology behind the pandemic, so I want to assure students that I will be teaching about it, without going into the details.

I end with an activity called AP Bio sentence matching. You can see my instructions for it in my Google Slideshow for this year. Here’s a link to the sentences that I use. You can also use these, which are taken from the AP Bio Course and Exam Description.

If we still have time after that, I’ll talk to my students about how the course works. This is all embedded in this document, which includes weekly agendas and a syllabus (with procedures).

Day 2: Class Procedures, More Personalization,  Introduce Natural Selection

I’ll start with a general check in. Knowing my BHS students, they are probably going to ask me about grades. As of the time I’m writing this (July, 2021) my grading practices (after 30 years of being in and out of the classroom) are in a state of flux. Why? Along with the rest of the science department at Berkeley High School, I’ve just read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. It’s made a huge impression on me. I deeply agree with most of what Feldman is promoting. While I’m happy to report that some of my grading practices are okay, I want to make some major shifts. I’ll be struggling with this throughout the summer and the school year, and I’m sure that struggle will show up in my weekly emails.

In any case, it’s important to share with students what the rules for success are in your class, and now is the time.

Then, I’ll briefly introduce the key ideas of biology. These are the four big ideas that you’ll find in the College Board’s Course and Exam Description. While these ideas (first introduced in 2012) got demoted a bit when the course was redesigned in 2019, they still provide a great framework for understanding biology.

After that, I get my students onto for their first assignment: the Biology Core Concepts module. is how I teach most of the content in my course, and I need to make sure that my students can log on and complete learning modules. For instructions about how to set up your classes and get your students learning on, go here. This module lays down a conceptual framework for all the biology that’s going to come. It’s also very easy material, and I wanted to pair easy content with a new use of technology ( for my students.

Day 3: HHMI, Making of the Fittest

On Day 3, I introduce natural selection. Why now? Because I agree with Dobzhansky: it’s the idea that makes everything else in biology make sense.

I’ll do this introduction through HHMI’s Rock Pocket Mouse Activity. The activity consists of a 10 minute video, followed by (or integrated with) a few options for activities.

The video plus the activities will take up the rest of class, and might even stretch into tomorrow.

Day 4: Finish Rock Pocket Mouse, Start the Peppered Moth

My schedule at BHS has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the I get a lot of time. I meet 7 periods a week. That’s once/day, Monday – Friday, and two supplemental periods. The reason we get so much time relates to our disadvantage: my students have never taken a high school biology course (because we’re a “physics first” school, with 9th grade physics leading to 10th grade chemistry leading to 11th grade biology).

I’m telling you this because if you find yourself wondering how I have so much time for activities, lab, etc., it’s because of those extra periods.

On Day 4, I’ll be

  • Finishing the Rock Pocket mouse (if needed).
  • Checking for understanding about the Key Themes of Biology.
  • Doing some brief lecturing about natural selection (see my slideshow).

If your students are ready for another activity about natural selection, turn to the peppered moth. This handout will guide your students through two computer-based activities related to peppered moth evolution. The first in on the Ask a Biologist website from Arizona State University. The second is a NetLogo simulation of peppered moth evolution. Both activities require a class set of Chromebooks and a pretty good Internet connection. If you’re going to do the NetLogo simulation, I strongly suggest that you spend some time playing around with it first.

For an added treat, have your students watch my music video The Ballad of the Peppered Moth. It was originally conceived as a sea shanty, so be prepared to sing.

To get more deeply into natural selection, use the tutorial about natural selection on It’s called “Thinking Like Darwin,” and it makes up the first two pages of this student learning guide.

If you have some time at the end of class, you can play “Grill the teacher. Give your students a few minutes to ask you any question they want about you or the course. If a student goes overboard, you can always say “that’s a bit too personal.” Next question.

Day 5: Setting up your students’s AP Biology Learning Journal

I’m going to start with some checking for understanding about artificial and natural selection. Note that we’ll cover natural selection again when we study evolution in unit 7. For now, my goal is for students to know enough about natural selection so that when we study enzymes, they can explain things like why the shape of an enzyme complements its substrate. Or, when we learn about SARS-CoV-2, to explain why the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 complements the shape of the ACE receptor, etc., why new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are arising and spreading through various populations.

Use this link to find out about how the AP Biology Learning Journal works. Today is the day when I’m going to dive in, introduce the journal, and have my students get started. By the end of this lesson, my students will have:

  1. Set up their journals.
  2. Written their first weekly reflection
  3. Found and pasted in their first showcase

If there’s time, I’ll also have students comment on one another’s work. You don’t want students to feel time pressure about writing their first reflection, so for this first week, I might just have students comment on each other’s showcase entries.

Week 2: Properties of Water; Understanding Standard Error


Last week, we operated on a very big picture level. This week we’ll start diving into the content of Unit 1. Also, please note that while last week I provided a day-by-day guide, this week (and for the rest of the course) I’ll be suggesting materials for the entire week.

A Note about Basic Chemistry

At my high school, we follow a physics-first sequence. All of my students took a 9th grade physics course, followed by a 10th grade chemistry course (at the regular high school or AP level). So my students have all the prerequisite chemistry they need to succeed in AP Biology. If that’s not true of your students, then consider having your students complete my tutorials about  Basic Chemistry for BiologyStudents.These tutorials cover all the chemistry your students need (atoms, molecules, chemical bonding, structural formulas, etc.)

Note that these basic chemistry tutorials are not, by default, assigned to your students, so you’ll have to do this through the “Manage Quizzes/Decks” page on For instructions about how to assign tutorials, go here.

Objectives for Properties of Water

Here’s the key learning objectives for Topic 1.1, Structure of Water and Hydrogen Bonding, in student-friendly format.

  1. Describe water’s molecular structure.
  2. Explain the physical and chemical properties of water that result from water’s molecular structure.
  3. List and describe three key properties of water that result from hydrogen bonding.

This involves two pieces of essential knowledge:

  1. SYI-1.A.2: Living systems depend on properties of water that result from its polarity and hydrogen bonding.
  2. SYI-1.A.3: The hydrogen bonds between water molecules result in cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension.

Related tutorials on

You can access the learning modules related to this topic on at Structure of water and hydrogen bonding. This module has two tutorials: each one includes a video. The first tutorial explains the underlying chemistry. The second is a virtual lab.

Labs and Other Activities

Here’s a link to an actual (non-virtual) properties of water introductory lab (which is qualitative comparison between water and isopropyl alcohol). The lab includes some reading and diagraming which might be redundant if your students are doing it after they do the online tutorial and virtual lab. The advantage of doing the lab first is letting students do some discovery learning, which can be motivating and fun.

The lab, the tutorial, and whatever checking-for-understanding you do might take two full class periods.

Once those concepts are secure, you can turn to teaching about standard error, which is an important statistical concept in the AP Bio curriculum. Ultimately, students just need to understand how to determine when the difference between two sets of data in an experiment is statistically significant. In most tests of this at the AP level, the answer is “when the error bars don’t overlap.”

This table (which is in the lab handout) says it all:

To do this,  I take my students through the process of actually calculating standard error. In later labs, we’ll use a google sheet to combine our data, look at class means, and graph the data with error bars (and let the spreadsheet do all the calculations).

This handout will introduce your students to standard error and error bars. It consists of explanatory readings, followed by practice problems. It culminates in a quantitive version of the water/isopropyl alcohol lab. I modified this from a handout that was posted several years ago in the AP Bio Facebook teacher’s group by Crystal Jenkins Stawiery.

Teaching about standard error takes some time, because calculating standard error of the mean is a slow process. I follow this with a second activity about standard error: a case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. I have a slightly modified version of this handout (I dropped out the last section). The original one is here. If you want the answer key for the tutorial you have to subscribe to the NCCSTS, which I highly recommend. All you need for this activity is a copy of the handout, and a ruler.

The first section of this handout is a simulated lab activity where students measure the zone of inhibition generated by growing a variety of  bacterial strains (one of which is MRSA) in the presence of one of four antibiotics. The second part talks about how antibiotics work, which is a good preview of topics that will be coming up in biochemistry and cell structure on function. In addition, antibiotic resistance is a great example of natural selection at work. Be sure to help your students to make that connection. If you want to, you can use this section about antibiotic resistance in bacterial from, which comes from our Evidence for Evolution tutorial.

Don’t forget to plant some broccoli

Sometime during the 2nd week of school, I have my students plant broccoli seeds. Just get some broccoli seeds, and plant them in a small or medium sized peat pot.

This has a couple of purposes.

  • It sets up a transpiration lab that I’ll do as soon as the plants get to be big enough (about 4 inches tall). This is one of the main ways that I teach water potential. I also use this an an opportunity for students to look at stomata, which is a great example of feedback regulation and homeostasis.
  • Many of my students (even in Berkeley, CA) have never grown a plant from seed. Observing this process (and the unfolding of form that happens during development), provides a great reference point when teaching about development later in the course.

If you plant your seedlings now, they’ll be ready in about 8 weeks (especially if you can grow them under grow lights).

Week 3: Topics 1.2 – 1.6: Biochemistry (Monomers and Polymers, Carbohydrates, Lipids)

Learning Objectives

You can see the College Board’s original objectives for this week’s material in their Course and Exam Description, or in my condensed version of the same document. Here they are in student-friendly form:

  1. Describe the key roles of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the molecules found in living things. Specifically:
    1. Explain why carbon is the key structural atom in all biomolecules
    2. Connect nitrogen to proteins and nucleic acids, and phosphorus to nucleic acids and phospholipids.
  2. Compare and contrast dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis reactions.
    1. Describe how dehydration synthesis reactions are endergonic, and how they’re used to build the complex molecules in living things.
    2. Describe how hydrolysis reactions are exergonic, and how these reactions are used to release energy and to digest polymers into monomers.
  3. Describe the structure and function of carbohydrates
    1. Explain how simple sugars (monosaccharides) are the monomers of carbohydrates, and how these monomers are combined to create more complex carbohydrates.
  4. Describe the structure and function of lipids
    1. Explain how differences in saturation determine the differences between fats and oils.
    2. Explain how the structure of phospholipids gives them polar/hydrophilic regions and nonpolar/hydrophobic regions.

Biochemistry Tutorials on

Instruction about biochemistry on starts with Carbon and Functional Groups. using this student learning guide. Note that the College Board won’t explicitly test your students about which functional group is which. However, they’re easy to learn, and familiarity with them comes in handy throughout many topics. For example, it’s is impossible to understand the principles of protein structure without knowing that some functional groups are polar, others are nonpolar, while others are acidic or basic. My experience is that it’s much easier to teach about proteins if you can say things like: “you see this carbonyl group? Remember how it’s polar, with a partial negative charge? When it comes into close contact with this hydroxyl, over here, the two will form a hydrogen bond. When you have dozens of these, if can lead this shape to emerge…”

It’s worth it to lay down a foundation now. Functional groups will also come in handy when you’re talking about DNA, membranes, phosphorylation cascades, etc.

After carbon and functional groups, move on to these tutorials, which are supported by this student learning guide.

  1. Biochemistry 1: Monomers and Polymers
  2. The Four Biomolecule Families (a video overview of what’s below)
  3. Biochemistry 2: Carbohydrates
  4. Biochemistry 3: Lipids

These tutorials have a lot of video support built in. In addition to videos about Carbon, Functional Groups, Monomers and Polymers, and Carbohydrates, I’ve put together an overview video called “The Four Biomolecule Families.” 

My tutorials about carbohydrates and lipids go into a lot of detail. Partly this reflects my own interested in nutrition, and my desire for my students to understand the foods that they eat. But if you think I’ve overdone it, let me know and I’ll consider reducing the detail in a future edition.

Additional Activities

  1. Molecular model building lab. This works best if you have a Molymod kit (or any other brand). But if you’re on a budget, you can probably make it work with marshmallows and paper clips.
  2. Starch Amylase Lab. This is one of those labs that makes it great to be a biology teacher. Students spit in a test tube filled with starch solution. Salivary amylase hydrolyzes the starch into glucose, which you can test with a test strip, or with Benedict’s reagent. If you can’t stand saliva (or if your school regulations would prohibit it), this lab is not for you. It’s also great for teaching about experimental design and control groups.
  3. The Biochemistry Basics POGIL You can buy the POGIL packets from Flinn Scientific.

Week 4: Proteins and Nucleic Acids

Learning Objectives

You can see the College Board’s original objectives for this week’s material in their Course and Exam Description, or in my condensed version of the same document. Look for Topics 1.4 and 1.5.  Here they are in a student-friendly form:

  1. Describe the structure and functions of proteins.
    1. Describe the structure of amino acids (central carbon, hydrogen atom, amine group, carboxyl group, and a variable R-group/side chain)
    2. Categorize R groups/side-chains as hydrophobic, hydrophilic, basic, or acidic.
    3. Explain how proteins are directional, with an amino terminus and a carboxyl terminus.
    4. Explain the four levels of protein structure give rise to a protein’s 3-D shape and function
      1. primary: the sequence of amino acids .
      2. secondary: interaction between carbonyl and amino residues leading to alpha helices and beta pleated sheets.
      3. tertiary: interactions between R-Groups
      4. Quaternary: interactions between polypeptide chains.
  2. Describe the structure and functions of nucleic acids
    1. Describe the structure of nucleotides (sugar, phosphate, nitrogenous base) and how those nucleotides differ between DNA and RNA.
    2. Explain how nucleic acids encode information in the sequence of nucleotides
    3. Describe DNA’s base pairing rules (A:T, C: G)
    4. Explain directionality of DNA (5′ to 3′ orientation), and connect directionality to DNA replication (in which new nucleotides can only be added to the 3′ end of a growing strand).
    5. Describe DNA’s overall structure (an antiparallel double helix: each strand is “upside down” relative to the other).

Tutorials on

This is conceptually difficult material for students, requiring a lot of molecular imagination. But I’ve provided a lot of resources on to support your teaching. This includes

  1. A video about the four levels of protein structure.
  2. An interactive tutorial about proteins (follows the video on the same page as above).
  3. A tutorial about nucleic acids.

Remember that this is only an overview of nucleic acids. You’ll teach about DNA and RNA in greater depth when you get to AP Bio unit 6 (DNA and molecular genetics).

Additional Resources

1. Use Flinn’s excellent POGIL on proteins to reinforce this material.

2. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do this, but this year, I’m very interested in getting my students to play “Foldit,” an educational game that gets users to solve puzzles related to protein folding. The problem is that the game is computationally intensive, and has to be downloaded onto a computer (there’s no online version). I’ll report back to you if I get my students to do it.  (and please let me know if you get your students to do it). At the very least, I’ll offer it to my students as an option for their own explorations in their biology learning journals.

3. Because we’re at the end of Unit 1, I’ll be sending my students to AP Classroom to do the Unit 1 progress checks.

4. For additional Unit 1 review, I have a set of flashcards and a quiz on this page. I also give my students this review worksheet.