It's Free
It's Convenient
It Works
four course areas, overview
college foundation skills
academic samplers
college success
career development
course examples

Area I
Area II - Academic Sampler
Area III
Area IV

Area II – Academic Sampler (example)

From the BIOLOGY course

What is Biology?
Leading off with questions

What would you say if someone were to ask you these questions?

green frog

What would I study in a biology course?

Why should I take a course in biology anyway?

What kinds of things do biologists investigate?

What kinds of questions do they ask?

Probably most of us would have to stop and think for a few minutes. We might come up with answers like these:

  • Biology is about plants and animals
  • You need biology if you're going into any medical kind of work.
  • Biology covers a lot of ground. It's a big subject.
  • Sometimes you have to dissect frogs and worms in a biology lab.
  • Biology has something to do with reproduction.
  • Biologists ask questions about how to prevent disease.

As far as they go, these responses are pretty accurate. But they don't begin to really answer the questions or to describe this immense and fascinating subject. This first module will give you the opportunity to enlarge your understandings of this subject.

The science of biology

The first answer in our list above "Biology is about plants and animals" steers us in the right direction. The word comes from two Greek word parts: bio- meaning life and -ology meaning study of. Biology is the study of living things and how they interact with their surroundings. That definition covers a huge amount of ground, as you can imagine, from the most microscopic bacteria to whales, Earth's largest mammal. It includes the simplest of plants, such as mosses and lichens to advanced plants such as giant redwood and sequoia trees. In one of the next sections in this module, we'll talk more about the immense variety of life on Earth.

Let's think for a minute about what it means to say something is a "living thing." It seems pretty obvious, but there's more to it than you might think. Scientists use six characteristics to determine whether something is an organism. Organism is another word for "living things." We'll use this word often in the course, as well as "life forms" when we talk about animals, plants and other living things.

Six characteristics of living things
  • Organisms are made of one or more cells: Cells are the basic units that we and all other living things are composed of. They are often called the "building blocks" of life.

Embryonic mouse stem cells
Embryonic mouse stem cells
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

  • Organisms use energy: Energy is the ability to do work. For example, plants make their food by using energy from the sun. Animals benefit from this same sun-given energy by eating plants or other animals.
  • Organisms are adapted to their environments: Adaptations make it possible for organisms to survive. Cactus is a plant that is adapted to life in deserts. It is able to store water in its stems and branches.
  • Organisms respond to stimuli: If you touch something hot, you jerk your hand away. The stimulus in this case is the hot object and your response is to protect your hand. If you dig up an earthworm and expose it to sunlight, its reaction will be to burrow quickly back into the soil. You've probably noticed how plants turn their stems and leaves (respond) toward sunlight (stimulus).
  • Organisms produce more organisms of their own kind: Reproduction is the process by which organisms produce offspring.
  • Organisms grow and develop: Organisms change in many ways during their lifetimes; this process of change is called development. Think of the many ways you have changed since you were born! A dramatic example of change is shown in the life cycle of a butterfly. This change is called metamorphosis, meaning a complete change in body form.

Two caterpillars on a green leaf

The butterfly develops from an egg to a larva. A caterpillar is the larval form of a butterfly.


The larva eats a lot of food and eventually changes into a pupa. The pupa spins a protective covering around itself called a cocoon.

Butterfly emerges from the cacoon

Inside the cocoon, the pupa changes into a butterfly.

Earth is home to millions of kinds of living things – all of which are studied by biologists. This field is so huge that no one person can learn everything. Biology is divided into many "sub-fields"and specialties. Biologists focus their work within particular sub-fields. A few examples of these branches or sub-fields are:

Study of plants
Study of animals
Study of the structures that make up living things, such as bones, blood vessels, muscles, and tissues
Study of how characteristics are passed from parents to offspring
Study of microscopic living things, such as bacteria
Study of the relationships among living things

Assignment 1.1:Connecting to your own experience

Think back to a biology or a similar science course that you took sometime in the past.

If you've never taken a science course or can't remember taking one, skip to #5, below.

1. Tell what the course was, when you took it and where.

2. Make a list of at least some things you remember about that course.  List anything that comes to your mind. For example, other people who took the course, the teacher (who and what she or he was like), the school you were attending at the time, what you read about (or listened to or looked at), what projects or laboratory work you did, whether you were interested and if so in what, whether other students seemed interested, how confident you felt in the class, what you learned.

3. Choose three things from your list. Write a short paragraph (three or four sentences) about each of the three things you picked.

4. Write a short paragraph describing how this past experience with a science course affects how you feel about taking this course. For example, how interested are you in biology now?

5. If you've never taken a science course or can't remember taking one, write paragraph answers to each of the two questions below:

  • From the reading you've done so far in the course Introduction, the Preview, and this short section, what idea did you find most interesting or most surprising? Explain your answer.
  • What is one question that you hope this course will answer for you? Why is this question of interest to you?

Use the assignment form and send your completed work to your teacher with the heading Bio 1.1.

Back to Top