What is the A level about?
Biology at A level is an interesting, stimulating and relevant course that opens pupil’s minds to the wonders and intricacies of how living organisms survive and function. It is an incredibly diverse course which looks at the shapes of molecules within cells are crucial for the functioning of the cell on the one hand to the impact of humans on the environment on the other. Biology is fundamentally an experimental subject and there are numerous opportunities to use practical experiences to link theory to reality, and to equip pupils with the essential practical skills they need. There is no coursework but practical skills and understanding will be assessed in the final exam and pupils will need to complete all the required practicals to receive their certificate of competency.
What does the A level consist of?
We use the AQA exam board for Biology and these are the topics that are covered over the two years.
- Biological molecules (in year 12)
- Cells (in year 12)
- Organisms exchange substances with their environment (in year 12)
- Genetic information, variation and relationships between organisms (in year 12)
- Energy transfers in and between organisms (in year 13)
- Organisms respond to changes in their internal and external environments (in year 13)
- Genetics, populations, evolution and ecosystems (in year 13)
- The control of gene expression (in year 13)
A-level Biology is examined through three exams which are taken at the end of year 13. Each exam is 2hrs long. The practical component is examined through questions in each of these exams.
Do I need to have studied the subject at GCSE?
To be eligible for this course pupils will need to have, in addition to the requirements set by the school for entry to the sixth form, a minimum of two grade 6s in Science at GCSE. It will be advantageous to have studied triple Science and they will be accepted onto this course if they have achieved at least a grade 6 for Biology overall and passed the other two Sciences with a 5 grade or above. If they have done a Double Award (Combined Science), they will need to have achieved a pass of 6-6. In addition to this, pupils will also need to have passed Mathematics with a grade 6 as there is quite a high level of mathematical skill required throughout the course.
Whom does the subject suit?
A level Biology is a fabulous subject for pupils who are interested in anything that has to do with living organisms and have a sense of awe in how living organisms interact with each other. It suits someone who is naturally inquisitive and doesn’t accept simple explanations for how something works. It is ideal for those who are able to hold lots of ideas in their mind and make links between them. Because it is such a broad course, it caters for those who enjoy, on the one hand, finding out about how molecules within the smallest part of a cell work (e.g. proteins in membranes) to those, on the other hand, who delight in exploring how organisms in whole ecosystems interact and evolve. It is ideal on the one hand for someone who can see themselves in a high-tech laboratory working on molecules you can’t even see to someone who wants to get out to exotic locations to find out about how pollution is affecting an endangered species.
What skills should I have?
Those who do best at Biology have a great command of the English language, have a good vocabulary and an ability to learn new Biological terms to allow them to cope with what, at times, seems to be a different language. Being able to pay attention to detail and the ability to communicate complicated ideas using precise terminology. There is a relatively high demand for good mathematical skills and although this won’t be at a higher level than GCSE Mathematics, it can often seem tricker because it is mathematics that is applied to a Biological context.
What might the subject lead to?
A level Biology is a useful stepping stone to future study of a vast array of degree courses, further study and careers such as:
- Botany - studying plants on the land and in the oceans.
- Zoology - study of animals in a whole range of environments from the most inhospitable to the most exotic.
- Genetics - study of the DNA in organisms and how this affects how the organism works. This is probably the area where there is the biggest expansion of knowledge and new discovery. If you are aiming for a major Science award, then this is a good area to go into.
- Biochemistry - looking at the chemical processes within living organisms and other chemical processes surrounding living things. It is the interface between Biology and Chemistry which may well take you into industry or helping geneticists to crack the problems they are facing.
- Molecular Biology - closely linked to genetics these days but a fascinating area of Biology in and of itself. It is the study of the composition and structure of molecules found in cells and how they interact to enable a cell to function efficiently.
- Microbiology - the study of microscopic organisms. This could lead to a career in looking at solving the problems that pathogens cause; or using food technology to solve the problem of how to feed billions of people each and every day.
- Sports and Exercise Science - where you gain an understanding of sports performance and the factors affecting how athletes perform on any given day.
There are a whole suite of other careers for which Biology is an integral part, such as veterinary science, farming, food production, ecology and conservation.
Although Biology isn’t strictly required for Medicine, it certainly is a subject that is highly valued not just for Medicine but for all the other branches of medicine such as nursing, physiotherapy, psychology and many more.
What trips are involved?
We take the L6th pupils to the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham which exposes the pupils to the vast range of careers that are available for pupils who have studied Biology. This fair is usually at the start of March and so is just at the time that the pupils are starting to think about university courses that they might be interested in.
What else should I consider before choosing?
It might be helpful to consider what other subjects you could do alongside Biology which would complement the subject. The obvious ones are Chemistry, Animal Management, Sports Studies and Mathematics. Other students have also studied DT or Art or English and all of these subjects help to develop analytical and observational skills that are very useful in Biology.
What books should I read?
- Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees by Thor Hanson
- Lessons from the Lobster: Eve Marder’s Work in Neuroscience by Charlotte Nassim
- Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Professor Menno Schilthuizen
- First in Fly: Drosophila Research and Biological Discovery by Stephanie Eliza Mohr
- Blossoms: And the Genes that make them by Maxine F. Singer
- How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future by David Hu
- Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything by Helen Scales
- End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals by Ross D. E. MacPhee
Who will teach me?