Year 10 IGCSE Biology Trip 2019

20190911_174415In June I led a Year 10 trip to Bucegi national park in the Carpathian Mountains. This would be my last school trip in Romania, and it was a fair success. I had taken the previous two IGCSE trips to the Danube Delta, sticking with the accommodation used by the previous Head of Science in the years before I arrived. I wasn’t happy with some aspects of the trip and tried tweaking activities to produce a greater impact on learning but it just was not a suitable location for IGCSE field work. Although the Danube Delta is one of the most biodiverse places in Europe, access is limited and much of that diversity is hidden behind foliage, underwater and cover of darkness.

We headed three hours north from Bucharest in two minibuses and started the trip with a walk through woodland, identifying common species as we went. This was a simple introduction to the area with pupils using laminated I.D. cards that I had made based on previous visits to the area. Through the week, pupils conducted comparative river and grassland studies and each evening we had a quiz on local ecology based on our experiences that day. Although memorising the names of species is not a requirement at Key Stage 4 (Or A-level for that matter, by which stage surely pupils should be expected to recognise a robin!), it is important for children to be familiar with common species as it adds lifelong richness to a walk in the park or a mountain trek.

The river site was set in a stunning location – forested mountains peppered with wildflower meadow made up the backdrop – and pupils could safely enter the water wearing wellington boots. They used chemical tests and biological indicator species scores to investigate the claim that this water is the cleanest in Europe. I was sceptical, but the results certainly pointed that way. White-tailed eagles soared overhead and just off the footpath male crested newts displayed to females in puddles bordered black with tadpoles.

On our second night, we had a spectacular viewing from the balcony of a brown bear and her cub searching through the cabin bins. At first this was exciting and certainly a memorable moment for the pupils who were overjoyed but it quickly became a sad sight. Eventually chased away by campers, these bears were clearly desperate for food, coming out of the shrinking forest to build fat reserves before the impending winter. I couldn’t help but suspect the hotel had not maintained the cage around the bins in order to lure the bears into view.

There were some complaints about the food served by the cabin, but it was good hearty fayre and nutritious. Snacking on crisps etc. became a problem and is something I would certainly clamp down on next year if I were still at the school. I hope my successor continues taking this trip to the mountains, though they might want to consider more responsible cabin owners regarding secure disposal of waste. The other members of staff who came on the trip are still at the school and so will improve the programme through the coming years.

Identifying Wildflowers using Rewilding Patches


On a cloudy June afternoon during Nature Club, pupils took flower cuttings from our three rewilding patches. They identified the collected specimens using iPads, placed them onto colour paper and labelled them before putting through a laminator. This was a nice activity that took one hour, perfect for an afterschool club. All of the samples have grown wild, and we got around ten in total, successfully identifying seven. I was only able to identify four, so clearly I need to brush up! I think one or two might be misidentified, but it was worthwhile and fun. I don’t think the PE department’s laminator enjoyed the experience, making some funny noises.

The pupils enjoyed the task and got to take their work home. Now they will recognise a couple more plant species when they see them.

Long-eared owls nesting in school again

long-eared owl

An adult long-eared owl looks down from a playground birch tree

Two years ago I wrote about long-eared owls nesting in the science garden. Last year I kept an eye out for them but they did not appear to have returned. This year, a nest has turned up on the other end of the school campus, in a conifer tree situated in the middle of the nursery and early years playground. The school is scattered with birch and conifer trees which attract goldcrest, nesting greater spotted woodpecker and greenfinch, amongst other more common garden species .

The playground, as you can imagine, is very noisy at break times. I wonder whether the parents chose the site during the Easter break, whilst it was silent for almost three weeks. What a shock they must have had on that first day back!

Two owlets were originally spotted side-by-side close to the nest, followed by a younger one a few days later. Three dwindled to two, to one, since when no owlets have been seen. They might well all be alive and taking refuge in the garden of the house next door or just out of site in one of our trees. The children loved seeing the owlets and were very good at staying away from them when they were perching on the fence or went to ground. Whenever I have been over for a look I have been joined by a gaggle of five year olds telling me all about where they have seen the owls on different days. There is a great tit nest in a wall cavity in the same playground but the little ones seem much less interested in that. One can hear the chicks calling and observe the parents rushing back and forth, but the nest is tucked out of site so conceptually it’s quite a tricky thing to grasp for children so young.

I have been over with my nature club students and a couple of the older biology pupils who are particularly interested in ecology and natural history. What a great opportunity to be able to watch a family of owls during your break time.

Using Rewilding Patches for the Second Year

rewilding patch

One of the rewilding patches, located behind the school dining hall

It has been very wet these past couple of weeks in Bucharest – good spring weather. The rewilding patches have turned from lank brown grassy areas to ‘mini jungles’ as one year 7 boy described them. Wildflowers and garden escapes are coming into bloom, to which the honey bees have responded in kind. No buff-tailed bumblebees or burnet moths yet though.

As mentioned in previous posts, it has been an ongoing battle to keep these patches from being mowed, with a number of parents perceiving them as looking unkempt and neglected as opposed to purposeful (which they very much are). The blue hearts go some way to identifying designated areas as having been allowed to grow wild as opposed to forgotten about.

Today I taught pollination and seed dispersal to Year 7 as part of their reproduction unit. These are two concepts that pupils often get mixed up. I myself didn’t help matters by saying wind pollinated when I meant wind dispersed once, but then it was last lesson on a Thursday! An ideal plant to use as an example at this time of year is the dandelion. About half are in full bloom and half turned to seed, so by getting out of the classroom pupils can see a before and after, often side-by-side. I had planned to incorporate the front playing field into the lesson, which had a good number of dandelions and buttercups having not been cut for a couple of weeks but, best laid plans and all that, it was mowed a few hours before the lesson. And so the rewilding areas became even more valuable.

Working in pairs, pupils visited the patches and took photographs of flowering plants on their iPads (I did introduce the term angiosperm, as many of them like hearing how usually I reserve such specialist words for GCSE) which they annotated. They were looking examples of adaptations for pollination and seed dispersal, focusing on whether done by insect, wind or mammal. Here is an example of one child’s work, taken from an area of no more than ten square metres behind the dining hall:


Pleasingly, most pupils got a view of a honey bee pollinating a dandelion flower with seed heads alongside, all happening at the same time. Next lesson we will pick a few samples to look at under the microscope. It is possible now to get high resolution images by placing iPad camera lenses over the microscope eye piece, so pupils will draw scientific labelled diagrams of their observations which is a skill they will be assessed on in four years in the alternative to practical biology paper.

Sri Lankan Leopards – A model for answering questions on natural selection

I have not written anything for a while. Term 2 is always incredibly busy, coupled with my applying for jobs back in the U.K. after working internationally for the past eight years.

My AS Level biology class has been struggling to get full marks in questions on natural selection, hitting around 3 or 4 out of the typical 6 marks available. I decided to use leopards in Sri Lanka as a model for how a new species might evolve by allopatric speciation. Sri Lankan leopards are the biggest in the world, and although I have never visited, my wife’s parents are Sri Lankan so a trip is certainly on the cards. I wanted to use a different example to the usual Galapagos islands but inevitably we arrived back at Galapagos finches and tortoises at the end of the lesson when discussing bird and reptile examples. Our amphibian example came from Madagascar – an island pupils are already familiar with from a past paper question on lemur endemism (and of course the Madagascar movies, but that only serves to confuse things!).


Pupils walked into a four minute video of a leopard in Yala national park, with a ‘to-do now’ activity of writing five key words that they could use when answering the ‘big question’, namely ‘How might Sri Lankan leopards evolve into a different species in 2 million years?’ This was worth eight marks, which is not beyond the realms of possibility for the real examinations in May.

We collectively added a few more key words to the list before students wrote a seven bullet point answer that incorporated as many of these terms as possible. There was an extension task about why Sri Lankan leopards have evolved to become so big, students being given hints verbally to get them going – There are no tigers in Sri Lanka, unlike India, and a good key term to use is ‘niche’.

Having gone through the answers, students then found their own examples of allopatric speciation (one each) in amphibians, reptiles and birds which they fed back to the class verbally. We talked about generation time and how long it would take for different animals to speciate. We also re-capped binomial nomenclature and the definition of species.


Students finished the lesson by thinking of hypothetical/predictive adaptive changes in behaviour, anatomy and physiology that might occur in Sri Lankan leopards over time. It is important to emphasise the point that the model answers we are talking about are just that – they can be applied to any example of allopatric speciation. This was not a lesson on leopards, but on endemism and evolutionary change. I still occasionally have pupils asking me “Will peacocks be in the exam? I haven’t seen them in the syllabus” or “Why is there a question about peacocks in the end of unit test – We didn’t learn about peacocks!” Of course the skill is applying one’s knowledge of natural selection to any case study presented, even if it is unfamiliar.

That said, leopards are big, familiar, charismatic mammals that pupils can get used to applying these skills to and I will return to them when revisiting conservation methods next week.

YouTube link

To improve young people’s engagement with nature in the U.K., reintroduce the lynx.

On the 4th of December last year, Michael Gove, Defra’s Secretary of State, refused an application by the Lynx UK Trust to reintroduce six Eurasian lynx to Kielder forest in Northumberland [1]. Gove stated that the application did not meet the necessary standards set out in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines and additionally did not comprehensively provide the necessary information required for Defra to be confident in the success of the proposal. The Lynx UK Trust said they remain committed despite this setback and I hope a second application will be successful [2].

The ecological benefits of a lynx reintroduction, as a key stone species, are there for all to read. So too is information on the extent to which a reintroduction is likely to affect sheep farmers and any danger to the public. As an educator, the main reason I would like to see lynx reintroduced is for the learning and wellbeing opportunities it would give to school pupils in the United Kingdom.

I teach in a British School Overseas (BSO) in Romania. Romania is home to some of the largest populations of lynx, wolves and brown bears in Europe. Pupils at our school regularly go out on biology and geography field trips and Duke of Edinburgh hikes in the mountains where these apex predators live, but they rarely, if ever, see any of these animals. I have one pupil in Year 13 who saw a pair of wolves whilst cycling with her sister a few years ago. This pupil is Romanian and when asked by an English classmate if she was scared replied “No. Why would I be? They ran away”. The Deputy Head once saw a lynx late at night whilst talking to the owner of the cabin where pupils were staying; the first time the owner had ever seen one himself. I have heard one or two tall tales, mainly from boys, about seeing bears disappearing into bushes during DofE hikes but I think these are unlikely to be true given a guide walks out ahead (as well as behind) to clear the way, coupled with the noise made by a large group of teenagers carrying tin cans. Still, not impossible and certainly exciting for young people to think about.

lynx scat

Lynx scat, found in Zarnesti national park, two hours from Bucharest

Bears and wolves are one thing. Lynx are quite another. There are no incidences of a wild Eurasian lynx attacking a human in recorded history and the probability of ever seeing one is vanishingly small. One might see tracks in the snow or some scat, if lucky. But to a young person (and old alike) this is often enough to have an impact. Even just knowing that lynx are out there, sharing habitat with you is invigorating and, I would argue, potentially hugely inspiring. Learning about lynx adaptations, litter size, sexual dimorphism and where the species fits into a food web would be enjoyable for children already enthusiastic about nature as well as those usually less keen. A biology teacher stands a much better chance of reaching a grumpy fourteen year old who hates school out in the field spotting red squirrels alongside looking for lynx scratch marks.

An initial hook is often needed to develop an interest in a particular area, whether this interest is in fitness, coin collecting or natural history. For millions of young people across the U.K. the lynx could be this hook. I am not suggesting that every child who visits Kielder post-reintroduction will become an avid naturalist (I am optimistically assuming it will happen eventually), but it will inspire some to pay closer attention to the natural world. With the U.K. being one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth and with children aged 8-15 spending an average of just sixteen minutes per day in parks, countryside, seaside, beach or coastal locations, a lynx reintroduction might be more valuable, if not necessary, than ever [3].



Testing the pH of Water around School, in the Snow

It was -2oC today in school, -8oC last night. The science garden pond has frozen over and a thin layer of hard snow covers the front playing field. Still, it was dry and sunny so I was keen to go ahead with the outdoor component to this lesson. The pupils here are well prepared for the cold weather, wearing snow boots, hats and thick coats so there really was no reason to cancel.

Pond smash 3

Smashing pond ice

This Year 7 class is quite wriggly, so I arranged them into pairs or groups of three – mixing up personalities. I had a T.A with me too who helped keep an eye on behaviour whilst pupils were outside. Each pupil received two test tubes and chose two locations to collect water/ice/snow from. Popular choices included the ornamental fountains, rewilding zone puddles and science garden pond. They filled the test tubes with water before coming back to the lab and testing pH using universal indicator. They had to decide in their pair or small group what pH number the colour indicated. I am always pleased to hear polite arguing when it comes to learning conversations between peers – these disagreements can be really very powerful. “No, it’s more green than blue, so it’s pH 8 not 9!” etc.

Pupils had planned their investigations in simple form at the start of the lesson, stating independent, dependent and control variables. Once they had agreed up the pH values for each location/sample they jotted the numbers down and produced a bar graph. There were some interesting results, with samples turning the indicator yellow, purple and everything in between.

acids and bases write up edit

Writing up results in the classroom

Next lesson we will start with five key words they can use in the conclusion followed by some peer assessment of their partners’ graphs using two stars and a wish. Students will then write up a short conclusion, highlighting key words, followed by an evaluation after we have discussed possible reasons for the differences in pH as a class. The whole lesson will end with a classic plenary using mini whiteboards – I will display colours and numbers on the projector screen. If pupils see a number they write the colour the universal indicator will turn and if they see a colour they estimate the pH number.

I am a big fan of short outdoor activities and in many ways prefer them to lessons taking place entirely outside. They are easy to plan, snappy, and pupils get to stretch their legs and blow off a bit of steam (which is especially important for the younger ones). Finding out that the snow on the school field is slightly acidic and the ornamental fountain water is alkaline of one’s own volition is so much more engaging than testing prepared solutions *Yawn*.

Enrichment: Stretching the high end

There has been a push over the past couple of year across our school towards challenging higher ability pupils, this having been one focus of an inspection we received last academic year. Although the inspection has been and gone and we passed with flying colours (with the science department getting a special mention for its emphasis on learning through practical activity), it is something I have remained interested in and continued to hone in my own lessons. My differentiation had previously been geared mostly towards making work accessible to pupils for whom science is more challenging and pupils aiming for A*s. But this high-end focus is about stretching pupils who are already well on track for an A* beyond the normal curriculum, otherwise referred to as enrichment.

There are three main approaches one can take here. The first is to apply real examples and case studies to the course material and get pupils to incorporate current facts and figures into their regular writing (not examination answers). Another is to introduce some A-level material. I tend to use this approach only on rare occasions because it can feel a bit dry and there is time for this when A-levels come around. The third approach is to introduce conceptual challenges based around my own knowledge of a topic. I find the best opportunities for this come from ecology, natural history and evolution given my background as an undergraduate and being subjects I continue to read books about.

On the one hand I think teachers should be careful not to overindulge our own interests within and around the subject thereby imposing them on pupils. We should try to spread extension across the curriculum. On the other hand it is nice to have teachers with a specialist interest and that interest/enthusiasm is infectious, which impacts pupils’ general enjoyment and fulfillment within the subject.

I was given a fallen bird nest by a fellow teacher on Thursday, found by her daughter in the local woodland. I think it is a wren’s nest. As a Dawkins fan (for the most part), I set a starter task of pupils discussing in pairs why they think the nest might be regarded as an ‘extended phenotype’. They needed to use key words from previous genetics lessons in the explanation. The idea here is that pupils who aren’t sure can provide a handful of key words they think might be relevant, ‘genotype’, for instance whilst the other puts it all together into full sentences. I also set the task of finding out what species of bird built the nest using an iPad, just as an added bonus for those who finished first. Neither of these pieces of knowledge are directly required from the syllabus but are not so off-road as to be irrelevant. The addition of facts and concepts from outside the syllabus is enriching, but it is a fine balance, must come after the meat and potatoes, and pupils should be made aware that it is additional. A teacher has to have the pupils’ confidence first so they know you aren’t just going off topic accidentally. I print off the syllabus points before a topic so pupils can highlight them as we work through (green/yellow/red depending upon understanding) and refer to them regularly, so there a clear picture of where we are and where we are going in relation to the final destination – Year 11 examinations.

We listed the key words from everyone’s explanation and linked it to the next topic sub-topic within genetics and inheritance – natural selection. It was a nice introduction talking about how the chicks within high-quality nests have a greater chance of survival and that they contain the alleles coding for good nest building skills so their offspring in turn will inherit this trait so the allele spreads through the population’s gene pool.


Wren’s nest in the classroom

Still, I remember as a pupil asking teachers about topics I knew they would go on about for five minutes so that I could slack off for a bit thus it is important not to get too specific. To bring all back into line I have set some general questions on natural selection from the textbook for homework and pupils will complete a past paper question on the archetypal example other than Darwin’s finches – peppered moths and the industrial revolution – as a starter activity next lesson.

I suppose the questions we need to ask when planning an enrichment activity are:

  1. Is meaningful?
  2. Does it link to the specification in some way?
  3. Where is the pupils’ elastic limit?

Of course, enrichment should not be the preserve only of the high-end but I think the priority has to be getting a pupil through the core material first (this can and should still be done using enjoyable, engaging activities).

Microbes and disease misconceptions

There are some interesting misconceptions that crop up in science lessons, right through from year seven to thirteen. One common one is that condensation on the outside of a water bottle comes from water inside the bottle. Another is that deoxygenated blood is blue, probably because most diagrams represent oxygenated blood as red and deoxygenated as blue. On that same topic, pupils often think that red blood cells are either oxygenated or deoxygenated with no in between and that blood is made by the heart. A classic physics example is that a penny dropped from the top of the Eiffel Tower would kill a person.

I enjoy debunking these misconceptions, and I find it interesting that over the ten years I have been teaching the same ones keep cropping up. I had another standard today – soil contains diseases. Not completely untrue but not to the extent that key stage three pupils often predict when carrying out microorganism investigations. All bacteria cause disease – that is another one.

This week my year nine class were given two agar plates each to rub swab samples onto. They had to choose one place where they thought lots of microorganisms grow and one that is completely sterile. Most chose playing fields, monkey bars and bins, shoes and toilets to take their ‘dirty’ sample from and desks, window sills and bathroom taps for the ‘clean’ sample.agar sample

This draws up a few interesting conversations – Can you tell if something contains diseases by looking at it? Is soil bacteria harmful to humans? Is something disease-free because it is shiny?

The agar plates will be incubated over the weekend for viewing on Monday before pupils take a photo of each and use an app on their iPads to superimpose a 100 square grid over the image to estimate percentage cover. They will then observe eachothers’ samples under a light microscope and try to identify any growth as bacterial or fungal.

Usually bathroom areas show very little growth, presumably because they are cleaned so regularly and the areas that show the most diversity are teachers’ computer keyboards.

An Update and Improving Science Trip Provision

I have been very busy these past few months. I hate when people say that – Everyone is busy! But the time I would normally use to write has been taken up with matters relating to my role as head of science that I cannot share on here. Not that they are particularly sensitive or serious but I avoid writing in detail about certain decisions I make in my management role, this being a blog to mainly used to kick around ideas. Not to mention this all being linked under my name and school (although unofficially) with pupils, parents and fellow staff members having access. As such I would never publish thoughts on decisions that relate to sensitive topics, past or present.

I have also successfully completed a middle leadership course which ran throughout last year and really picked up pace at the end with a final action research report being due. In short, it was useful and I passed although there are parts that I would approach differently next time, which is always the way.

I do find this platform useful as a place to record my thinking on how to improve pupil engagement with science (particularly nature/outdoor-based activities) and that is what this short piece is about – assembling some order in my plan to improve trip provision for chemistry, physics and biology at key stages 4 and 5.

About six months ago my wife and I went with some friends to a micro-brewery and made eight litres of wheat beer. Most of the bottles came out successfully, even though I am not a big fan of wheat beer, much preferring IPA. The place is owned by two brothers, both of whom speak excellent English, especially one who lived in London for eight years. During the descriptions of the process one thing stuck out – the science chimed perfectly with a particular section the GCSE biology syllabus I recalled from years back but had not seen in newer syllabi. I checked and found that the role of anaerobic respiration in bread-making remained but brewing beer had been taken out.

biology syllabus 1

biology syllabus 2


Cambridge IGCSE Biology syllabi – first exam 2015 on top and first exam 2020 beneath.

I searched the latest Cambridge IGCSE chemistry specification wondering if it had been shifted across and found that brewing did not appear there either. This was more of a disappointment because the chemistry department is in need of a new trip whereas biology has two post-KS3 trips already – one of which just needs improving (more on that below). It does make me wonder why this decision was made at a time when craft beer sales are on the increase in the U.K. alongside over 2000 registered breweries. Why take this small piece of content out when the industry is going through a growth period?

The less than three and half pages of bullet points that makes up the biology content of the national curriculum for England doesn’t offer any clues, having been last updated in December 2014, when compared to versions right back to 1999, neither containing any mention of brewing.

So the search for a chemistry trip continues. I have asked the Headmaster to see if he has any parent contacts in the pharmaceutical industry. We did have a professor of chemistry visit from the University of Bucharest who gave a very interesting talk on persistent organic pollutants but I know their on-site facilities are basic.

A more exciting prospect is that of A-level physics students visiting a site that researches nuclear physics with high powered lasers, just 12km from Bucharest. I have the email address of a contact and reached out to them today to see if they can offer something relevant. I am hopeful, the Edexcel international AS and A2 physics syllabi we use having lots of content relating directly to these areas. This will be a good one to run in winter after mock exams and January modules are complete.

Briefly, I was a bit disappointed with the Danube Delta trip for this year’s Year 11 biologists. The pupils got what was needed out of the trip and enjoyed themselves, but I know it could be made better. I am considering a complete shift in location to the mountains for the bulk of the five day programme and have contacted a couple of organisations to see what they can offer in June in terms of field work opportunities. One possibility is that the pupils do a tour of three sites, visiting the bison reintroduction programme first, stopping for a day at a wolf research centre en route to spending a final day at the Danube delta. It would be a shame to strike the delta off completely, being the most biodiverse place in Europe.



Click to access cSci.pdf

Click to access Science_KS4_PoS_7_November_2014.pdf

Click to access 128334-2015-syllabus.pdf

Click to access 414443-2020-2021-syllabus.pdf