Using the Nature of Science in Class

With my current grade 11s, we have not spent much time on the nature of science in class.  Although resources are provided in their notes, we have focused more on experiments and content.  Having just finished our second unit and the end of unit test, I developed this resource as an introductory activity that students worked on in groups of three.

The resource is adapted from one of the many wonderful templates provided at the #TMSouthHistorians blog: and often shared through @Jmosley_history – this is the A-B Starter.


I chose NOS prompts from topics 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 10.3, 4.1, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5 and 8.1, which make up the first two units I teach – Diversity of Life and Chemistry of Life.  I had the students work together with no resources to begin with and try to identify links to the syllabus topics, TOK and to using the five categories of NOS to help organise the different ideas.  I tried to emphasise that they didn’t need to try and memorise new content but to discuss how these link to the knowledge they already have.  The task seemed to work well and got them more engaged than if we were just learning the content of the statements.  I hope to eventually develop templates for each unit that I teach.



2.4 Proteins

Looking for patterns, trends and discrepancies—most but not all organisms assemble proteins from the same amino acids.

Part of the universality of life is the observation that all living organisms construct proteins out of the same pool of 20 amino acids.  These 20 were identified in a rapid era of discovery after the development of partition chromatography in 1943.  However, this has now been expanded to include two additional amino acids – selenocysteine and pyrrolysine, giving a total of 22 amino acids.

Selenocysteine, as the name suggests, is similar to the amino acid cysteine but it has a Selenium atom as part of its side-chain (R-Group). It is a highly reactive and potentially dangerous substance – cells have to use some tricky metabolic pathways in order to prevent it from moving freely and building up in the cytoplasm.   It is used in certain redox reactions and has been found in all three domains of life, although it is not universal amongst them

Pyrrolysine is rarer, having only been found in some species of Archaeans and bacteria. It is structurally similar to lysine, but with the addition of a a pyrroline ring to the side-chain. It’s role and possible existence in other organisms is the focus of many ongoing studies.

Both of these amino acids are not encoded in the DNA – they are instead encoded by the stop codons UGA for selenocysteine and UAG for pyrrolysine and expressed via interactions with specific tRNA molecules, a process known as cotranslation. The biochemistry involved is fairly complex and difficult to summarise for IB biology purposes, but if you are interested the links below are a good place to start.

In summary, then:

  • all living organisms use the traditional 20 amino acids to construct proteins and code for these amino acids in their DNA
  • all three domains of life (thought not every species in them) also use a 21st amino acid selenocysteine in some proteins (humans included)
  • Archaeans and bacteria have developed a mechanism to use a 22nd amino acid, pyrrolysine.
  • both of these amino acids are not coded for in the DNA but are expressed through the use of a stop codon and tRNA
  • the presence of Selenocysteine in all three domains strongly suggests it was present in the last universal common ancestor, and is thus a very ancient biochemical pathway


Selenocysteine and pyrrolysine are powerful examples of the versatility inherent in the genetic code. (Rother and Krzycki).

Like so many aspects of biology, once a rule is determined, the incredible variety of life shows us an exception.

For an interesting TOK-linked discussion, consider this quote, also from the Rother/Krzycki article:

They further provide examples of how precedent, though valuable, is not always the best predictor in scientific investigation…

What do the authors mean by this?  Does this mean that inductive reasoning is not always a reliable form of reason? What other examples from science can you think of to illustrate this quote?


Das, Gunajyoti & Mandal, Shilpi. (2013). Nearest-Neighbor Interactions and Their Influence on the Structural Aspects of Dipeptides. Biochemistry research international. ResearchGate. Accessed on 2 October, 2018

Dinmann, J. (2012). Control of gene expression by translational recoding. Advances in Protein Chemistry and Structural Biology via ScienceDirect. Accessed on 2 October, 2018.

Gutiérrez-Preciado, A., Romero, H. & Peimbert, M. (2010) An Evolutionary Perspective on Amino Acids. Nature Education. Accessed on 2 October, 2018.

Rother, Michael, and Joseph A. Krzycki. “Selenocysteine, Pyrrolysine, and the Unique Energy Metabolism of Methanogenic Archaea.” Archaea 2010 (2010): 453642. PMC. Web. 2 Oct. 2018.

2.5 Enzymes

Experimental design—accurate, quantitative measurements in enzyme experiments require replicates to ensure reliability. (3.2)
This links to Practical 3 – Experimental investigation of a factor affecting enzyme activity.

Working with enzymes is something that all biology students get very familiar with over their studies!  This is particular true in the new syllabus as Practical 3 requires an enzyme experiment and they are popular as topics for the IA.

Testing the effect of substrate concentration on potato catalase.

Although there are several other practical-themed NOS statements, this one makes particular reference to the idea of reliability and replicates.  In terms of assessment this is most likely to appear in the Section A of Paper 3, when students are provided with experimental scenarios and have to apply their knowledge. However, it is also important for the IA.  The chosen investigation must design a methodology that will collect sufficient data, the data must be processed with appropriate awareness of uncertainties, and the reliability of the results reviewed and evaluated in the conclusion and evaluation.

This is thus an important lesson to not just experience the practical side of biology, but to understand the importance of replicates and how this impacts the IA.  So what could this look like? Here are a few ideas:

  • If an enzyme-based experiment, aim for five variations of the independent variable (five different pHs; five different temperatures etc). As enzyme experiments are invariably time-based, this will allow you to plot a graph with more confidence (five data points rather than, say, three).
  • Try to repeat each variation five times.  This will provide enough data to calculate the average and standard deviation. Of course there are more processing options than this (think rate of reaction) but these two are the basics.
  • The conclusion/evaluation needs to then assess how the range of the independent variable, the sample size and the processed data contribute to the reliability of the experiment. The more replicates you have, the more robust this section will be.
  • There are always time constraints on how many replicates you can collect – so factor this into your methods.  If your experiment is only collecting data for three minutes for each run, then you should be able to get more replicates (and you will be expected to collect more data).  If, in contrast, you are collecting data for more than an hour per experiment, then you will need to be aware of this.
  • Finally, remember that design, processing and evaluation are all relative to the specific experiment you carried out – so always think in terms of the context for your investigation and the resources available to you.


2.2 Water

Use theories to explain natural phenomena—the theory that hydrogen bonds form between water molecules explains the properties of water.

Theories in biology are explanations for how the natural word works. They can be broad statements that incorporate facts and laws and must be testable through experimentation or observation.  In our everyday conversation we may use theory as a synonym for “educated guess” but in the scientific context theories are far more rigorous and comprehensive.

Consider these observations of water in the lab (you may well have done all of these at some point!):

  1. We can use a pipette to pile drops of water onto a coin.  The water does not spill off immediately but piles higher and higher.
  2. With great care, we can float a paper clip on top of a glass of water. Adding a drop of detergent causes the paperclip to immediately sink.
  3. If we heat and cool samples of ethanol and water, the water heats up more slowly, boils at a higher temperature and cools down more slowly than the ethanol.


Observations in the natural world, such as insects that seem to walk across water or the absorption of water by a plant add to the idea that water appears to be a rather unusual liquid and must have particular properties in order to explain these features.

Based on our observations and experiments, we need to review other scientific theories and ideas to help develop a theory – in this case, atomic theory and the properties and behaviour of electrons.  This then develops into a coherent theory explaining our observations and results as a consequence of hydrogen bonding that takes place between water molecules.

The red lines show the attraction between the electron-rich Oxygen atom and the electron-poor Hydrogen atom (Gould)

We cannot “see” a hydrogen bond and cannot prove absolutely that they exist.  However, the theory of hydrogen bonds and how they function explains all of the above observations and more about the properties of water and has withstood experimental and observational testing.  We can accept this (or any) theory as correct if there is evidence for it, if it has predictive power, if it has not yet been falsified, and if it explains natural processes.



Allott, Andrew, and David Mindorff. Biology: Course Companion. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gould, S.E. “Hydrogen Bonds: Why Life Needs Water.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 6 Aug. 2013, Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.

Purvis, David. “Water Drops on a Penny.” Dr. Dave’s Science, 2015, Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.

VILLANUEVA, A. “Floating Paperclip on Water.” Understanding Biology, Blogspot, 27 Jan. 2010, Accessed 20 Apr. 2017.


Best Holiday Read 2016

Like all good biology teachers, I try to load up my summer reading list with the latest science books.  One book in particular stands out this year and I think it deserves its own blog post!  Described as a “biography of the gene”, The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a phenomenal book.  Beautifully written (the author, a cancer physician and researcher, has a genuine literary touch) it is a fascinating overview of our understanding of the gene.  It takes us from the first Aristotelian musings on inheritance all the way forward to today’s latest insights into genetics and molecular biology.  All the famous geneticists from the Nature of Science are in here: Mendel, Darwin, Morgan , Watson, Crick, Franklin, Sanger and too many more to list.  In fact, the book is the perfect compendium for IB Biology students!  The narrative is lively and engaging and the individual personalities of the scientists leap off the page. It is worth making time for, even in the busy schedule of an IB student.


2.1 Molecules to Metabolism

Falsification of theories—the artificial synthesis of urea helped to falsify vitalism.

A popular theory during the 18th and 19th centuries, though it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, was the idea of Vitalism.  Vitalism states that:

…living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. (Bechtel and Richardson)

It was particularly associated with the idea of a vital force that provided the “spark” of life separating the living from the non-living.

In 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler synthesised organic urea from inorganic cyanic acid and ammonium. Although it is now doubted that Wöhler expressly set out to falsify vitalism, his results nevertheless showed that organic molecules can be produced without the need for a non-specific “force” – providing an important milestone in understanding quantitative chemistry, isomerism and biochemistry.

As a scientific theory, Vitalism fails on two principal fronts: it offers no predictive value and there are no tests or experiments which could be used to demonstrate its existence or function.


Bechtel, W. and Richardson, R. Vitalism. 1998. Web. May 24, 2016.

Kinne-Saffran and Kinne R.K.H. Vitalism and Synthesis of Urea: From Friedrich Wöhler to Hans A. Krebs. Am J Nephrol 1999; 19:290–294.

2.8 Respiration and Ethics

Assessing the ethics of scientific research: the use of invertebrates in respirometers has ethical implications.

The use of animal models in biological experiments has a long history. Indeed, many of our most important discoveries were made possible by using animal test subjects. However, using animals at any time during an experiment has ethical implications that need to be evaluated.

Any scientific research involving animals will have to satisfy an ethics board as to the justification for using and/or experimenting on animals. Two key issues that scientists have to consider might include: what suffering or pain will the animal experience and are there alternatives to using animals?  There is a process in the UK called the 3R’s – replacement, refinement and reduction of the use of animals in research (Festing, S. and Wilkinson, R.).  This process, while acknowledging that animals may be required in certain circumstances, aims to ultimately reduce these to only the most essential experiments.

There is often a difference in concern between invertebrates and vertebrates in terms of what ethical rules apply to them.  Most people probably care less about the fate of cockroaches or crickets in a respirometer experiment than about the use of mammals in medical research.  However, it is still important to evaluate the ethical use of invertebrates in the same way as vertebrates. In addition to the issues of pain/suffering and replacement, we should consider:

  • whether the animals can be released back into their natural habitat
  • whether it is ethical to remove them in the first pace
  • whether we can minimise any pain or suffering that may take place in the experiment.

The IBO has published a document on the use of animals in experiments and it is very clear that any animal (invertebrate or not) must be treated ethically and must not be subject to any suffering or environment outside its normal range. This link from the Nuffield Foundation outlines an experiment based on this; take note of their ethical issues paragraph after the methods.


Allott, Andrew, and David Mindorff. Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

Festing, Simon, and Robin Wilkinson. The Ethics Of Animal Research. Talking Point On The Use Of Animals In Scientific Research. EMBO Reports 8.6. 2007: 526-530. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.


Content, Practicals and the Nature of Science

As I have mentioned at various times on this blog, I think one of the challenges with the new syllabus is the idea that the NOS represents an “add-on” that will somehow impact teaching and learning.  Some of them certainly are new concepts and content, but some are also linked directly to either content, lab-work or both.  In these cases, making the connections is easy and can help reinforce what the students are already learning.  Some examples that would work here include (IBO,2014).:

1.4 Membrane transport Experimental design—accurate quantitative measurement in osmosis experiments are essential. (3.1)
This links to Practical 2:  Estimation of osmolarity in tissues by bathing samples in hypotonic and hypertonic solutions. 

2.5 Enzymes Experimental design—accurate, quantitative measurements in enzyme experiments require replicates to ensure reliability. (3.2)
This links to Practical 3 – Experimental investigation of a factor affecting enzyme activity.

2.9 Photosynthesis Experimental design—controlling relevant variables in photosynthesis experiments is essential. (3.1)

4.3 Carbon cycling Making accurate, quantitative measurements—it is important to obtain reliable data on the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. (3.1)
See my post on Carbon Database Analysis

6.1 Digestion and absorption Use models as representations of the real world—dialysis tubing can be used to model absorption in the intestine. (1.10)

9.1 Transport in the xylem of plants Use models as representations of the real world—mechanisms involved in water transport in the xylem can be investigated using apparatus and materials that show similarities in structure to plant tissues.
This links to Practical 7 – Measurement of transpiration rates using potometers.

With a bit of planning, a single lesson can combine content, practical work and the Nature of Science.  Further, linking NOS to an experiment can help reinforce understanding in a much more effective way. As you begin to work towards the IA, these then provide additional inspiration for students to develop their own investigations.

In terms of preparing for examinations, students should draw on their experience with these practical experiments. This looks especially important for the new Paper 3, which includes a Section A with unseen data based on the core/AHL syllabus, but could also be important on the other papers as well.

I could envisage the following sorts of short-answer questions (to be clear, I have made these up myself!):

  • Outline the use of models in:
    • measuring transpiration in plants
    • showing how absorption in the small intestine works
  • Explain the need to control variables when designing experiments to measure photosynthesis
  • Outline the importance of collecting adequate quantitative data when conducting osmosis experiments/measuring the rate of reaction in enzyme experiments.
  • Explain the importance of quantitative data in providing evidence to support climate change

Remember to look back over your experimental notebooks or old lab reports here – this does not require so much in terms of memorisation of facts but rather the process and justification of experimental procedures.

Biology Guide: First Assessment 2016. Cardiff: IBO, 2014. Print.

2.6 Making Models – DNA

Topic 2.6:  Using models as representation of the real world—Crick and Watson used model making to discover the structure of DNA. (IBO, 2014)

This year, while trying to locate our ball-and-stick DNA models, we found an old cardboard-puzzle DNA kit.

Piecing together the puzzle
Piecing together the puzzle

It proved a great (and unplanned) way to introduce the structure of DNA and have the students examine the chemical features to deduce their own answers to the structural significance of DNA.  The advantage of this kit was that it had the chemical structure painted onto the puzzle pieces and the students, much like Watson and Crick in the early 1950s, were able to experiment with no guidance from me and determine which pieces needed to fit where.   There were many “Aha” moments as different students determined out where the different chemical pieces fit best.

The finished product!
The finished product!

We were thus able to figure out the significance of anti-parallel strands, purine + pyramidine pairing, 3′ →5′ linkages and the sugar-phosphate backbone.  Models in action!

2.3 Carbohydrates and Lipids

Evaluating claims—health claims made about lipids in diets need to be assessed. (5.2) (IBO; 39)

This NOS links nicely to to syllabus knowledge statements:

  1. Unsaturated fatty acids can be cis or trans isomers. (IBO; 39)

  2. Application: Scientific evidence for health risks of trans fats and saturated fatty acids. (IBO; 39)

  3. Application: Evaluation of evidence and the methods used to obtain the evidence for health claims made about lipids. (IBO; 39)

The concept of evaluating claims also lends itself to TOK.  Thus it is possible to teach necessary content, the NOS and provide TOK integration, all in the one lesson.  This is the best way, in my opinion, to incorporate the NOS (or TOK for that matter)- not as “additional content” but complementary to the learning that is already going on.

The first lesson involves covering the understandings: the molecular structure of fatty acids, the differences between saturated and unsaturated FAs and the difference between cis and trans unsaturated FAs.  This covers the content needed.  In our next lesson, the students are placed in groups and have one of the following four articles allocated to them:

We should ban Trans Fats – The Guardian

Dairy Products Don’t Cause Heart Disease– The Guardian

Are Fats Bad? – New York Times

Butter is Back – New York Times

As part of their reading, the students are asked to identify the First Order Knowledge Claims made in the article.  These are claims about knowledge within specific subject areas – for instance, Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease.

The students then share their knowledge claims on the board, using the Sustainability Compass (Compass Education). The board is divided into the four compass points (N, E, S, W), representing the four key dimensions of sustainability: NatureEconomySociety, and Well-being. This adds another layer to the discussion by having the students incorporate systems thinking – environmental effects of industrial animal farming, econmoic impacts of chronic health problems, the personal impacts of diet choices and lifestyles etc.

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 3.28.04 PM

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 4.25.38 PM
The Sustainability Compass (Compass Education

The next part is, as a class, to select 3-5 of these First Order Knowledge Claims and identify the TOK concepts and vocabulary that match them best and to then develop them into Second Order Knowledge Claims.  These are the focus of TOK – claims about the nature of knowledge.  Students must be able to distinguish between first and second order claims as a central part of their TOK course. The final task is to develop the second order knowledge claims into appropriate knowledge questions (open-ended, general and about knowledge) – which are cornerstone of the TOK presentation and essay.

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 4.31.36 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-27 at 4.32.01 PM

Ideally, we do this in one 85-minute lesson, though if you set the reading for homework it would be possible to complete this in a shorter period.

Thanks to Camille Garewal (@CDolmont) for pictures and inspiration for this post.


IBO. Biology Guide: First Assessment 2016. IBO, 2014.

“Compass and Accelerator Tools.” Compass Education, AtKisson, 10 Aug. 2017,

IBO. Theory of Knowledge Guide: First Assessment 2015. IBO, 2013.

“Sustainability Compass.” Accelerator Pro, AtKisson, 2017,