New AP Biology Curriculum Framework

I had the opportunity (thanks to my colleague and AP Biology expert Pat Mote) to examine the new AP Biology Curriculum Framework, due to be implemented in fall 2012. It has been several years in development, undoubtedly in response to critiques that AP Biology (and college freshman introductory biology) is too encyclopedic, as well as to the rapid changes in the science and to shifts in pedagogy towards more inquiry and interdisciplinary skills (e.g. NAS Biology 2010).

I think the new AP Biology framework is a significant improvement in almost every way. First, it addresses both concepts (the content) as well as process skills. It explicitly and repeatedly emphasizes numerical and mathematical analyses, data analysis, and thinking through models. Specific content boundaries are drawn to limit content: X marks content items that are beyond the scope of the course and not to be included in the test. Finally, evolution is presented as the first “big idea,” and the organizing principle of biology. These are practices that we try to implement in our freshman biology sequence at Georgia Tech.

The new AP Biology framework organizes content as 4 “big ideas,” each subdivided into “enduring concepts,” and each “enduring concept” has its own supporting “essential knowledge” items. Each of these big ideas spans a broad range of scale, and attempts are made to highlight connections across enduring concepts and big ideas.

The organization of the first big idea, evolution, is superb. It emphasizes concepts, evidence and data analysis, while de-emphasizing memorization of factual details such as the names and dates of different periods of Earth history.

The other big ideas are #2: energy and molecular building blocks for growth, reproduction and dynamic homoeostasis, #3 information storage, retrieval and transmission and response to information, and #4 systems interactions and complexity. Each of these ideas spans spatial scales from molecular to organismal to populations and ecosystems. The individual concepts and content is not much different from what is in current textbooks, but organized under one of these three big idea tents, with cross-connections mentioned. It’s a different way of thinking about and organizing these concepts. It may stimulate a re-sequencing of course syllabi, or at least an emphasis on cross-connecting to relevant big ideas and enduring concepts.

The process skills are delineated as 7 “science practices”.  These are: #1 use representations and models to communite scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems; #2 use mathematics appropriately; #3 engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations; #4 plan and implement data collection strategies appropriate to a particular scientific question, #5 perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence, #6 work with scientific explanations and theories, #7 connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts and representations in and across domains.  Each of these have 2-5 specific skills that students should be able to demonstrate.

Finally, the content (concepts) and the process skills are merged to articulate “Learning Objectives” such as those after “Essential Knowledge 2.c.2 “Organisms use negative feedback mechanisms to maintain their internal environments and respond to external environmental changes”:

The student can justify a claim made about the effect(s) on a biological system at the molecular, physiological or organismal level when given a scenario in which one or more components within a negative regulatory system is altered. [See SP 6.1] {Science Practice 6.1 = justify claims with evidence}

The student is able to connect how organisms use negative feedback to maintain their internal environments. [See SP 7.2] {SP 7.2 = connect concepts in and across domains to generalize or extrapolate…}

The student is able to evaluate data that show the effect(s) of changes in concentrations of key molecules on negative feedback mechanisms [See SP 5.3] {SP 5.3 = evaluate evidence provided by data sets}

The student can make predictions about how organisms use negative feedback mechanisms to maintain their internal environments [See SP 6.4] {SP 6.4 = make claims and predictions based on scientific theories and models}

My concluding thoughts are that the AP Biology curriculum (and maybe the IB biology curriculum) is the closest we have to a national consensus on how college-level introductory biology should be taught. It reflects years of work by very capable and thoughtful teachers and scientists, well beyond the effort that faculty put into designing freshman biology courses at most individual colleges and universities. We should all take a close look at this new framework.


About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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4 Responses to New AP Biology Curriculum Framework

  1. Robin Heyden says:

    Well done, Jung! Thanks for this advance look at the new AP Bio Curriculum. You describe it very well. When will the College Board make this public?

  2. KES says:

    The final version is now available on the sight. Quick question for anyone reading — do the 7 required process skills mean that we can choose our own lab activities for students to demonstrate the process skills and we can skip any of the old “12 required AP labs” that we want? I can’t find anything in the new curriculum about the labs, so I am assuming that there are no longer any required labs. Is anyone else making the same assumption? Thanks for any assistance.

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