High School Biology in Your Home has a long but important subtitle: A Research-based Independent Study Guide for Home School Families. This course is very different from any other biology course I have seen because when it describes it as “research-based” it means that students will actually research to learn rather than reading along in a textbook.
This year-long course serves as a complete high school biology course with lab work. While it requires students to primarily learn through independent study, it is ideal if students can meet in a group class once a week for lab work, discussion, quizzes, and exams. The group class is also fairly essential for the debate assignment at the end of the year. However, if you can’t pull together a group class, a student can still complete the course on his or her own, skipping the debate.
The course’s layout is unique. The student manual is a three-hole-punched packet of pages that students need to insert into a binder. Students will need a large binder since they will be adding a number of pages to it each week. The student manual is divided into two parts with a tabbed divider between the weekly questions and the “Dissecting Manual” pages. There is no instructional information here.
Each week the student has a page with questions on the week’s topic. Students spend the week researching and reading to learn the answers to each question then writing or typing out their answers.
Students can use textbooks, real books, or the internet—whatever sources they wish. They are learning how to do research in a very effective fashion as they learn the course material. There is always the possibility that students will simply cut and paste answers from information on the internet. Sometimes, this will be a practical way to answer a lengthy question, but students need to also study and absorb the material—not just locate it. Weekly quizzes and semester exams hold students accountable for actually learning the material, but parents should also go over the answers students come up, perhaps asking students to explain in their own words to see if they truly understood what they wrote.
Students will need to do an extensive amount of writing with this course, since they are essentially writing their own textbook as they answer questions. While this sounds overwhelming, it shouldn’t be since the course sticks with a narrower range of topics than do most high school biology texts. While it covers the basics—cells, the different classifications of life forms, human body systems, and genetics—it really leaves it to the student as to how far they might go in their reading and research. The course includes some chemistry, but not as much as some other courses; it leaves it up to the parent to decide how far to require students to go into the chemistry. This is true in other areas as well. For example, a question for the first week on cells says, “Research and define what DNA is and what RNA is, and state the difference. How are each structured? What components make up the DNA? The RNA?” You can see how students might answer this briefly or extensively. While some students might simply write a list of the components, others might write more information about the components. Parents might want to be more specific about what they are looking for in advance. So while the course covers required topics, the depth of research and study is left for the parent and student to determine.
The course briefly skims over "careers in biology," and rarely mentions famous biologists and historical developments, all of which tend to get more attention in other courses. On the other hand, High School Biology in Your Home does something unusual when it directs students to study about evolution so that they are prepared for a debate at the end of the year. Students are supposed to be prepared to argue on either side of the origins debate without more than five minutes advance warning, and it requires them to do so based only upon science, not Scripture. (I really like this approach because it forces students to think seriously about the “evidence” presented by evolutionists rather than dismiss it with one-sided arguments.)
For the most part, questions are “information seeking” such as the second week’s question, “Research meiosis. How is meiosis different from mitosis?” The evolution debate preparation is a rare departure from that approach, and the questions for the week on the human reproductive system are another. While the first question on reproduction has students learn the names and purpose of reproductive organs, the second question asks, “What is ‘embryology’?” and the third question takes a very pro-life position by asking a number of questions about fetal development and pregnancy “from the moment of conception.” That week’s questions conclude with an assignment to write a paper with the title: “Why It Is Important to be Abstinent from Premarital Sex,” a big leap from fact-finding questions into trying to form a particular attitude in students. Still, a majority of homeschoolers are likely to be comfortable with this assignment. Parents just need to know that it is there so they can have students skip it or do something different if they so choose.
I am a little bothered by grammatical errors in the questions such as the use of “its function” rather than “their functions” in the first week’s question: “Research and define as many cell components (organelles) as you can, be sure to include its function.” This question should also be split into two sentences. However, grammatical errors in the questions are likely to be irrelevant to most students.
On the other hand, I'm impressed with the solid lab component which parallels topic coverage in the rest of the course. It should be manageable for students and parents who have no prior lab experience. Students will need a microscope, and Ardoin offers useful tips about purchasing microscopes in the introduction to the course. Lab activities rely heavily upon microscope observations and dissections as well as drawing and labeling activities. Theoretically, students might do lab work on their own, but I think parental supervision should be a necessity. Also, many students are likely to need help with the dissections as they try to figure out what they are observing. This is a good reason to have a group class, but if that's not available, parents can help students figure it out. One field trip is suggested but an alternative activity is offered as well.
Ardoin offers a “total package” that includes the set of parent and student manuals plus dissection specimens, a dissection tray, and tools. You can add a set of slides if you need them. A microscope is not included. Students can learn how to prepare their own slides or you can purchase them already prepared. Even if you buy the total package, you will still need to obtain some plants and plant seeds, but they should be easy to obtain.
The spiral-bound parent manual describes how the course works and has weekly supply lists (for lab resources), but the bulk of the book is an “answer key.” I put answer key in quotes since Ardoin tries to cover all of the essential information students should be including in their own responses for the weekly questions, quizzes, exams, and lab activities. This means that a parent does not need to consult all of the resources for him or herself. However, I suspect that students will often come up with answers not covered in Ardoin’s answers, and then parents might need to double check resources used by the student. (Students aren’t directed to note which resources they used, but it might be helpful to come up with some abbreviation system to identify sources of information used so that parents can double check easily if needed.)
While students can work independently on their research, parents might need to be more involved at first as students become familiar with how the course works. As I mentioned before, parents also need to discuss students' answers with them, using the material in the parent manual for their own reference as needed. Nevertheless, the course is relatively easy for parents to oversee, and even more so if you are able to join with others for a group class for the lab work.
The course package includes the 157-page parent manual, the student manual, and a packet of quizzes and final exams. You can purchase extra student manuals separately.
The discovery approach used in this course is likely to produce better learning results than a standard textbook even if the course doesn’t cover as much material. I really appreciate having an option like this since I expect that many students will prefer this approach.