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Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science

Elementary school teachers can use this life science video course to review concepts needed to teach today's standard-based curricula.

A video course for grades K-6 teachers; 8 one-hour video programs, course guide, and website. (Please pardon the dust as we work to finish this series on the new website. The videos are now published for each unit.)

Essential Science for Teachers courses are designed to help K-6 teachers gain an understanding of some of the bedrock science concepts they need to teach today’s standards-based curricula. The series of courses will include Life ScienceEarth and Space Science, and Physical Science.

Life Science consists of eight one-hour video programs accompanied by print and Web materials that provide in-class activities and homework explorations. Real-world examples, demonstrations, animations, still graphics, and interviews with scientists compose content segments that are intertwined with in-depth interviews with children that uncover their ideas about the topic at hand. Each program also features an elementary school teacher and his or her students exploring the topic using exemplary science curricula. Use the complete course for teacher education or professional development, or individual programs for content review.

How would you answer the question: “What is life?” 
Life Science
 is one of three courses focusing on helping teachers build understandings of fundamental science concepts.

Essential Science for Teachers

Essential Science for Teachers courses are designed to help K-6 teachers gain an understanding of some of the bedrock science concepts they need to teach today’s standards-based curricula. The series of courses will include Life ScienceEarth and Space Science, and Physical Science.

Life Science consists of eight one-hour video programs accompanied by print and Web materials that provide in-class activities and homework explorations. Real-world examples, demonstrations, animations, still graphics, and interviews with scientists compose content segments that are intertwined with in-depth interviews with children that uncover their ideas about the topic at hand. Each program also features an elementary school teacher and his or her students exploring the topic using exemplary science curricula. Use the complete course for teacher education or professional development, or individual programs for content review.

Course Overview

From aardvarks to zebras, the living world provides diverse opportunities for learning in the natural sciences. Children are wonderful observers of their surroundings and are fascinated by even the most common living things. This is especially true when they are encouraged to look at life in ways that scientists do, to ask their own questions, and to shape their own answers.

The challenge is to ensure that their understandings are scientifically accurate. To do this requires teachers to have their own sound understandings of core science concepts. Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science is a content course designed to help K-6 teachers enhance their understandings of “big ideas” in the life sciences. The main goal of this course is to provide teachers with learning opportunities that will directly inform their own classroom practice.

This course is composed of eight sessions, each with a one-hour video program addressing a topic area in the life sciences that is likely to be part of any elementary school science curriculum. The course begins by posing the question “What is life?” It then defines “life” and considers how life forms are classified. Animal and plant life cycles then become the focus for investigating the continuity of life. Next, diversity within the living world provides the context for exploring the basics of biological evolution. Finally, large-scale biological processes are introduced by looking at how energy and matter enter and move through the living world. Video examples, colorful graphics, lively animations, demonstrations, models, and other visual strategies are used as learning tools to bring meaning to the content being addressed.

Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science also focuses on the ideas that children bring to the classroom about these topics. Intertwined with content segments, each video program features interviews of children that uncover their ideas about relevant concepts. This is supplemented in print and Web materials by a bibliography that suggests readings from the research literature. Each program also highlights an elementary school classroom where a teacher and his or her students explore the topic using exemplary curriculum materials. A curriculum spokesperson is interviewed to provide insight into the importance of the topic at the elementary school level. Connections to current events are made through an interview with a scientist who applies relevant concepts on a daily basis.

By exploring topics that range from the molecules of life to the complexities of an entire ecosystem, Life Science strives to provide participants not only with enhanced content understandings, but also with understandings of how this content connects to the elementary school classroom.

Session Descriptions

Session 1: What Is Life?
What distinguishes living things from dead and nonliving things? No single characteristic is enough to define what is meant by “life.” In this session, five characteristics are introduced as unifying themes in the living world.

Session 2: Classifying Living Things
How can we make sense of the living world? During this session, a systematic approach to biological classification is introduced as a starting point for understanding the nature of the remarkable diversity of life on Earth.

Session 3: Animal Life Cycles
One characteristic of all life forms is a life cycle—from reproduction in one generation to reproduction in the next. This session introduces life cycles by focusing on continuity of life in the Animal Kingdom. In addition to considering what aspects of life cycles can be observed directly, the underlying role of DNA as the hereditary material is explored.

Session 4: Plant Life Cycles 
What is a plant? One distinguishing feature of members of the Plant Kingdom is their life cycle. In this session, flowering plants serve as examples for studying the plant life cycle by considering the roles of seeds, flowers, and fruits. A comparison to animal life cycles reveals some surprising similarities and intriguing differences.

Session 5: Variation, Adaptation, and Natural Selection
What causes variation among a population of living things? How can variation in one generation influence the next generation? In this session, variation in a population will be examined as the “raw material” upon which natural selection acts.

Session 6: Biological Evolution and the Origin of Species
Why are there so many different kinds of living things? Comparing species that exist today reveals a lot about their relationships to one another and provides evidence of common origins. This session explores the theory of evolution: change in species over time.

Session 7: Energy Flow in Communities
Communities are populations of organisms that live and interact together. The structure of a community is defined by food web interactions. The process of energy flow is the focus of this session as the interactions between producers, consumers, and decomposers are examined.

Session 8: Material Cycles in Ecosystems
Studying an ecosystem involves looking at interactions between living things as well as the nonliving environment that surrounds them. Life depends upon the nonliving world for habitat, as well as energy and materials. In this session, material cycles will be explored as critical processes that sustain life in an ecosystem.

Course Structure

On-Site Activities

Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science consists of eight three-hour sessions, each of which includes group activities and discussions as well as an hour-long video program.

The course guide provides activities and discussion topics for pre- and post-viewing investigations that complement each of the eight one-hour video programs.

Getting Ready (Site Investigation)
In preparation for watching the program, you will engage in 60 minutes of investigation through discussion and activity.

Watch the Course Video
Then you will watch the 60-minute video, which includes classroom footage, commentary, science demonstrations, and more.

Going Further (Site Investigation)
Wrap up the session with an additional 40 minutes of investigation through discussion and activity.

For Next Time

Homework Assignment
You will be assigned exercises and activities that tie into the last course session or prepare you for the next one.

Ongoing Activities

Bottle Biology
Each course video features a section titled Bottle Biology, which is a long-term, hands-on activity that uses readily available materials to explore plant growth. You can follow along or simply watch the investigation and ponder the questions it poses.

Reflective Journal Entry
A critical part of taking steps toward change is representing learning along the way. This is a deliberate process that calls for reflecting upon your own understandings before, during, and after key experiences and documenting how these understandings change. While there are numerous ways to represent learning, we suggest using a journal. As the course progresses, pay particular attention to changes in your thinking, and the implications of these changes, and record them in your journal.

General Tip

It is strongly recommended that participants acquire a college-level biology text. Reading topics will be listed in each session.


Getting the Materials

You may watch the videos streamed from the course unit pages. The course guide is also available as a PDF under Support Materials on this Web site.

If you are participating in a group session, your facilitator will give you a copy of the print guide or request that you print the PDF for yourself from this Web site. Your facilitator will give you any instructions concerning the meeting time and place, what you should bring to sessions, and work you should do outside the group sessions.

Using the Materials

The print guide and Web site provide background, activities, discussion questions, homework assignments, and resources to supplement the video programs and provide a robust professional development experience. They also provide information for facilitators to plan and structure group sessions.

The course guide describes pre- and post-viewing activities and discussion to fill out the remainder of the session. The guide also provides homework to expand on what you have learned and prepare you for the next session.

If you are leading a group session, read the course guide for more information on planning and facilitating this course.

About the Contributors

Series Producer

  • Clive Grainger


  • Shannon Densmore
  • Chris Schmidt
  • André Stark

Course Content Developer

  • Dr. Susan A. Mattson


  • Dr. Douglas Zook, Boston University
  • Dr. Linda Grisham, Lesley University

Science Studio Facilitator

  • Dr. Eleanor Abrams, University of New Hampshire

Bottle Biology

  • Dr. Paul Williams, University of Wisconsin–Madison


  • Anna Lewicke

Featured Classrooms

Content Advisors

  • Dr. David Baum
    University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Dr. Brian White
    University of Massachusetts–Boston

Series Advisors

  • Dr. Eleanor Abrams
    University of New Hampshire
  • Christina Bash
    Salem, MA, Public Schools
  • Dr. Cherry Brewton
    Georgia Southern University
  • Patricia Goodnight
    Washington, DC, Public Schools
  • Dr. Linda Grisham
    Lesley University
  • Dr. John Kania
    Assumption College, MA
  • Deborah Knight
    Cambridge Friends School, MA
  • Diane Lonergan
    Bedford, NH, Public Schools
  • Dr. Ann Haley Mackenzie
    Miami University, OH
  • Ellen Peterson
    Weymouth, MA Public Schools
  • Dr. Irwin Shapiro
    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • Jeff Winokur
    Education Development Center, MA
  • Dr. Douglas Zook
    Boston University

Research Assistant

  • Zoe McKiness

Series Editors

  • Ian Albinson
  • Steven J. Allardi
  • Tom Lynn
  • Douglas K. Plante
  • Sandeep Ray

Additional Editing

  • Len Gittleman
  • Jim Shea
  • Dr. Valerie Weiss


  • Thomas Danielczik
  • Clive A. Grainger
  • Kevin Hartfield
  • Gary Henoch
  • Alex Griswold
  • Tobias McElheny
  • David Rabinovitz
  • Sandeep Ray


  • Mario Cardenas
  • Joseph Chilorio
  • Charlie Collias
  • Robert Duggan
  • Dennis Fry
  • Lisa Haber-Thomson
  • Chi-Yun Lau
  • José Leon
  • Tobias McElheny
  • Andrew Neuman
  • Juan Rodriguez

Studio Lighting Gaffers

  • Jeffrey M. Hamel
  • Lee-Anthony Holloway

Original Music

  • Alison Reid
  • Treble Cove Music

Graphic Design/Animation

  • Ian Albinson
  • Steven J. Allardi
  • Mary Kocol
  • Tom Lynn

3-D Computer Animation

  • Chi-Yun Lau
  • Raedia Sikkema

Web Design

  • Alison Reid

Support Materials Developer

  • Chris Irwin

Production Coordinator

  • Lisa Friedman

Associate Producers

  • Yael Bowman
  • John D. Doan
  • Janice Fuld
  • Dr. Valerie Weiss

Production Assistants

  • Carla Blackmar
  • James Day
  • Robert Duggan
  • Lisa Haber-Thomson
  • Pamelita Leefatt
  • Lauren Peritz

Instructional Materials

  • Investigating Life Cycles
    BSCS Science T.R.A.C.S.
    Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
  • Causal Patterns in Ecosystems
    Available through Project Zero: This curriculum was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. REC-97255-2 and REC-0106988.) All opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
  • Bones and Skeletons
    Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
  • Exploring with Wisconsin Fast Plants
    Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company
  • Organisms
    Science and Technology for Children
    Carolina Biological Supply Company
  • SCIS 3+ Life Cycles
    Delta Education
  • SCIS 3+ Communities
    Delta Education


Cyanobacteria image
John Patchett (University of Warwick), Mark Schneegurt (Wichita State
University), and Cyanosite (


Reprinted from the Leeds National Curriculum Science Support Project,
Leeds City Council/University of Leeds.

Channel Operations Manager

  • Bev King

Director of Outreach

  • Joyce Gleason

Outreach/Scheduling Consultant

  • Dana Rouse

Outreach Coordinator

  • Colleen Kern

Outreach Assistants

  • Amy Barber Biewald
  • Zenda Walker

Education Coordinators

  • Jeff Peyton
  • Alexander D. Ulloa

Financial Manager

  • Oral Benjamin


  • Linda Williamson

Project Manager

  • Nancy Finkelstein

Executive Producer

  • Alex Griswold

Executive Director

  • Dr. Matthew H. Schneps

Course Developer

  • Sue Mattson, Ph.D.
    Sue Mattson received a B.A. in biology from the University of California at Berkeley, followed by a master’s in biology and Ph.D. in science education from Florida State University. Dr. Mattson’s dissertation focused on the dynamics involved as biologists and science educators worked together to develop a biology course for prospective elementary teachers. In addition to teaching biology at the high school, community college, and university levels, her experiences include curriculum development in the sciences and professional development for teachers. She has taught science-methods courses for early childhood and elementary education majors and served as an instructor in a Web-based distance learning course for practicing elementary teachers seeking master’s or specialist’s degrees in science and/or math education. She has worked previously with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the following series: Case Studies in Science Education, The Next Move: Steps Toward Change in Elementary Math and Science, andLooking at Learning…Again, Part I.

Onscreen Guides

  • Eleanor Abrams, Ph.D.
    Dr. Eleanor Abrams is an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire. She is a member of the Department of Education and the interdisciplinary Natural Resources doctoral program. She earned her B.S. in wildlife biology and botany and her doctoral degree in science education from Louisiana State University (1994). Her research focuses on how students learn content and the scientific process through project-based and technology-enriched curricula. Dr. Abrams has developed environmental curriculum in which students work, often with scientists, on authentic research projects. One such project is the GLOBE program (Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment) where K-12 students monitor the environmental health of their local area and send the results to other schools and scientists via the World Wide Web.
  • Linda Grisham, Ph.D.
    Linda Grisham received a B.A. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago, followed by a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Stanford University. She has a deep commitment to science and math teacher preparation, particularly for those who teach in underserved communities. She has worked over the years as a research scientist (University of California–Santa Barbara and Brandeis University), science educator, curriculum developer, financial planner, community activist, and radio commentator. Now at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she has a joint appointment in the School of Undergraduate Studies, Natural Science Program, and the School of Education and teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses (physics, chemistry, modeling complex systems, pharmacology, and science education). Current projects include the co-creation/implementation of a fully online master’s degree program, Science in Education Program for K-8 teachers with TERC, Inc., a science- and math-focused think tank. She is also a founding member of the Institute for African-American E-Culture.
  • Paul Williams, Ph.D.
    Dr. Williams has been a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 1962. He attended the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Through his research addressing the diseases of cabbages in the state of Wisconsin was born the idea of developing a rapid cycling plant (Fast Plants) as a model for research with a wide range of biological and educational applications. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, was made a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 1979 and served as its president in 1989, and received the Eriksson Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1981. He served as Director of the Center for Biology Education on the Madison campus from 1989-1995 and was named Atwood Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1995. He became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996 and received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of British Columbia in 2001.
  • Douglas Zook, Ph.D.
    Dr. Zook is an associate professor of science education and biology at Boston University. He also directs the Master of Arts in Teaching program in science education. He is the co-founder and director of the Microcosmos Professional Development Program for Science Teachers and serves as president of the International Symbiosis Society. Dr. Zook received his Ph.D. from Clark University and did extensive postdoctoral symbiosis research at the University of Tuebingen as a Fulbright Scholar. Dr. Zook teaches a science methods course for students who intend to become biology instructors. He also currently teaches a graduate symbiosis course and an undergraduate global ecology course.

Curriculum Developers

Programs 1 and 7

  • Dr. Herb Thier, SCIS 3+, Lawrence Hall of Science
    Herbert D. Thier is currently an academic administrator emeritus at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley. Thier received his B.A. in physics and biology from the State University of New York, Albany, in 1953 and his M.A. in school administration in 1954. He received his Ed.D. in curriculum and administration from New York University in 1962. Since 1963, he has been leading instructional materials development and teacher enhancement projects in science at the Lawrence Hall of Science. In 1975, he received (with M. Linn), the JRST Research in Science Teaching Award of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. Thier received the Distinguished Service to Science Education Award of the National Science Teachers Association in 1994 and the Distinguished Service to Science Education Award of the Connecticut Science Supervisors Association in 1996.

Program 2

  • Dr. Sally Goetz Shuler, Science and Technology for Children, National Science Resource Center
    Sally Goetz Shuler is the executive director of the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), which is sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and The National Academies. The mission of the NSRC is to improve the teaching and learning of science in the nation’s schools. In addition to managing the NSRC’s professional development and outreach activities, Dr. Shuler oversees the development, dissemination, and evaluation of curriculum and other teaching tools for students, including the NSRC’s comprehensive science curriculum programs for K-8 students, Science and Technology (STC) and Science and Technology Concepts for Middle School Students (STC/MS).Dr. Shuler has over three decades of experience working to improve K-12 science education at the local, national, and international levels. At the classroom level, she has ten years of experience as a high school biology, earth science, and mathematics teacher in both private and public schools. She has also been a science instructor for adult education in Fairfax County, Virginia. At the district level, she served for five years as the K-12 science resource specialist for the Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation’s tenth largest school district. Dr. Shuler has an M.S. in environmental health sciences from George Washington University and a B.A. from Edinboro State University, with majors in biology and geology.

Program 3

  • Dr. Rodger Bybee, Science TRACS (Teaching Relevant Activities for Concepts and Skills), Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS)
    Rodger W. Bybee is executive director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), a nonprofit organization in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that develops curriculum materials, provides professional development for the science-education community, and conducts research and evaluation on curriculum reform. Prior to joining BSCS, he was executive director of the National Research Council’s Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (CSMEE), in Washington, DC. Between 1992 and 1995, he was associate director of BSCS. From 1972 to 1985, he was professor of education at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He has been active in education for more than 30 years, having taught science at the elementary, secondary, and college levels.

Program 4

  • Nancy Landes, Science TRACS, Biological Science Curriculum Study
    Nancy M. Landes, Ph.D., currently serves as the director of the BSCS Center for Professional Development. She began her professional career as a classroom teacher, grades 4 and 5, and completed a master of arts in curriculum and instruction and a Ph.D. in science education at Michigan State University. She joined BSCS in 1983. Since joining, Dr. Landes has served as the project director of two major curriculum development projects—Science for Life and Living: Integrating Science, Technology, and Health and BSCS Science TRACS, both in elementary science education. In her role as the director of the Center for Professional Development at BSCS, Dr. Landes is the co-principal investigator of the SCI Center, an NSF-funded high school implementation and dissemination center. She has worked with NSTA to develop inquiry-based professional development materials and strategies within NSTA’s Building a Presence for Science program. Landes is particularly interested in helping teachers make the connections between curriculum implementation, professional development, and student learning and in establishing the conditions that make possible the successful implementation of meaningful instructional materials and strategies in science classrooms.

Program 5

  • Paul Williams, Exploring With Wisconsin Fast Plants, University of Wisconsin
    Listed above.

Program 6

  • Karen Worth, Insights, Education Development Center, Inc.
    Karen Worth has extensive experience in early childhood and elementary science education. She worked as a curriculum and staff developer for both the Elementary Science Study (ESS) and the African Primary Science Program at the Education Development Center in the 1960s. More recently, she was the principal investigator for the development of the Insights Curriculum. She also was principal investigator for a system-wide science education reform effort in Cleveland, Ohio, and works as a consultant and advisor to many urban systemic reform efforts across the country. She chaired the Working Group on Science Teaching Standards for the National Science Education Standards effort of the National Academy of Science and is currently co-principal investigator of the NSF-funded K-12 Science Curriculum Dissemination Center at EDC and the Toolkit for Early Childhood Science Education. She has also been a member of the Wheelock College faculty for over 30 years where she teaches early childhood and elementary education courses at the graduate level. She began her career in education as a teacher of young children in New York City and Boston and continues to work closely with teachers and children in classrooms.

Program 8

  • Tina Grotzer, The Understandings of Consequence Project, Project Zero
    Tina Grotzer is a research associate at Project Zero. Her research focuses on topics at the intersection of cognition, development, and educational practice, such as the learnability of intelligence and how children develop causal models for complex science concepts. She works with students and teachers in several school systems on an ongoing basis, linking theory and practice such that they inform one another. She has studied cognitive development both as a teacher and as a researcher. Tina is co-principal investigator on the Understandings of Consequence Project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project has identified ways in which student explanations of scientific concepts have different forms of causality at the core than those of scientists. She received her Ed.D. in 1993, her Ed.M. in 1985 from Harvard University, and her A.B. in developmental psychology from Vassar College in 1981.


Program 1

  • Gary Ruvkun, Ph.D.
    Gary Ruvkun has been a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School since 1985. Professor Ruvkun received his Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University in 1982. Dr. Ruvkun’s major research interests include neuroendocrine control of metabolism and aging, temporal patterning during development, regulatory RNAs, genomics, neuroendocrine regulation of molting, regulation of fat deposition, microbial diversity, and life on Mars. Over his career, Dr. Ruvkun has authored or co-authored over 90 scientific papers and has maintained a lab and active teaching schedule at the Harvard Medical School. He has received myriad honors for his work including, most recently, the 2001 National Institute of Health Merit Award.

Program 2

  • Colleen M. Cavanaugh, Ph.D.
    Dr. Colleen M. Cavanaugh is the Edward C. Jeffrey Professor of Biology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. She received both an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1981 and 1985, respectively. Professor Cavanaugh’s continuing research interests include prokaryote-eukaryote symbiosis, including its physiology, biochemistry, ecology, evolution, the co-evolution of host and symbiont, and the physiology, molecular biology, ecology, and evolution of autotrophs and methanotrophs, as well as microbial cycling of inorganic and organic compounds. In addition to her teaching responsibilities at Harvard, Dr. Cavanaugh is a Visiting Investigator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and has ten deep-sea research cruises worldwide and twelve deep-sea dives on the submersible Alvin to her credit. She is the author or co-author of approximately 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Program 3

  • Sigal Klipstein
    Dr. Klipstein is a fellow in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She has received two fellowships, one in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, and the other in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Boston IVF and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Dr. Klipstein has lectured in both gynecology and medical ethics at the Harvard Medical School and has authored or co-authored over 10 original articles. She is a member of the New England Fertility Society, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, and the Society of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.

Program 4

  • Judith Sumner
    Judith Sumner is a botanist who specializes in flowering plants, specifically their evolution, morphology, anatomy, and adaptations. She has taught extensively both at the college level and at botanical gardens. She served as education director at Garden in the Woods (New England Wild Flower Society) until she accepted her present position at Assumption College in Worcester, where she is a member of the natural sciences faculty. Sumner has published monographic studies in the American Journal of Botany, Pollen et Spores, and Allertonia. She monographed two families for recently published volumes of Flora Vitiensis Nova. Her first book, The Natural History of Medicinal Plants, was published in October 2000; her second, Domestic Botany: The Natural History of Household Plants, is due out in 2004.
  • Dan Scheirer, Ph.D.
    Dan Scheirer is an associate professor of biology and also directs the Electron Microscopy and Imaging Center at Northeastern. A plant biologist, Professor Scheirer’s research has focused on studying patterns of plant cell development with diverse plants ranging from algae and mosses to flowering plants, including the plant model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana. Scheirer is also a forensic botanist who applies plant cell and molecular biology to the resolution of legal questions. A passionate teacher and classroom innovator, Scheirer teaches an introductory biology course as well as higher-level courses in plant biology, plant development, and electron microscopy. He has authored more than 50 scientific publications as well as essays for college texts and student study guides.
  • Dan Cousins
    Dan Cousins is the head grower at Wilson Farms in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he oversees the operation of a one-acre, fully computerized and automated greenhouse. Cousins earned his B.S. in botany at the University of Texas. After graduating, Cousins worked for five years in Texas as a commercial grower before being hired to serve as a grower at Cornell University. While at Cornell, he also taught a course on interior plantscaping.

Program 5

  • Georgia Dunston, Ph.D.
    Georgia Dunston is professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology at Howard University College of Medicine and founding director of the newly formed National Human Genome Center (NHGC) at Howard University. Her research on human genome variation in disease susceptibility has been the vanguard of current efforts at Howard University to build national and international research collaborations focusing on the genetics of diseases common in African Americans and other African Diaspora populations. Dr. Dunston is program director of the coordinating center for the Africa America Diabetes Mellitus Study, an international collaboration to study the genetics of type 2 diabetes in ancestral populations of African Americans, and the coordinating center for the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer Study Network, a national cooperative formed to map and characterize genes for prostate cancer in African Americans. The NHGC is instrumental in bringing multicultural perspectives and resources to an understanding of knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project and research on human genome variation.
  • Robert Murray, Ph.D.
    Robert Murray serves as professor of pediatrics and medicine and chief of the Division of Medical Genetics in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health in the College of Medicine at Howard Medical School. In addition, he is a graduate professor and chairman of Howard’s Graduate Department of Genetics and Human Genetics, which offers both M.S. and Ph.D. programs through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He has authored or co-authored more than 80 publications, including four books: most recently, The Human Genome Project and the Future of Health Care. Dr. Murray is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow and member of the board of directors of the Hastings Center, a fellow of the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, and a former member of its governing council. He has been a member of the Mammalian Genetics Study Section of the Division of Research Grants, NIH; the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council of NIGMS, NIH; and the Bioethics Advisory Committee to the Secretary of DHEW 1979-81. He is a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Medical Genetics.

Program 6

  • Jim Hanken, Ph.D.
    James Hanken is the director of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he also serves as the curator of Herpatology. Additionally, he serves as Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Hanken earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley and then worked on the faculty of Colorado State University for 16 years before coming to Harvard in 1999. His research interests include evolutionary biology, especially development, morphology, and systematics, and he works principally with amphibians. Professor Hanken oversees research efforts in Sri Lanka, Africa, and South America, and is currently engaged in his own fieldwork in Central America, where he is interested in describing new species of salamander. In addition to his work as a biologist, Professor Hanken has received awards for his nature and scientific photography.
  • Douglas Causey, Ph.D.
    Douglas Causey is senior biologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, and serves as the chief ornithologist in the museum. He has authored more than 120 articles and books on natural history, biodiversity, and ornithology, and is actively engaged in research and public education. His research is focused on the coevolution and natural history of avian viruses, tropical biodiversity, and environmental security and sustainability. He has active research programs in the United States, throughout the Arctic, and in Central and South America. At present, he is undertaking a broad-scale survey of birds and avian disease pathogens along migration pathways ranging from Arctic Siberia and Alaska to both coasts of Costa Rica. He has been working for the past decade on various issues relating to national and international environmental policy and has published several recent articles on environmental security and the conservation of forests and biodiversity.

Program 7

  • Aaron Ellison, Ph.D.
    Aaron M. Ellison is senior research fellow in organismic and evolutionary biology at the Harvard Forest and adjunct professor in the graduate program in organismic and evolutionary biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He received a B.A. in 1982 from Yale University, and a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1986. In 1992, during his tenure as the Marjorie Fisher Professor of Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College, Dr. Ellison received the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Faculty Fellow award for “demonstrated excellence and continued promise both in scientific and engineering research and in teaching future generations of students to extend and apply human knowledge.” His research foci include: food web dynamics, community ecology of wetlands and forests, evolutionary ecology of carnivorous plants, and the application of Bayesian inference to ecological research and environmental decision-making.
  • Marianne Farrington, Ph.D.
    Marianne Farrington is the associate director of the Edgerton Research Laboratory at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Farrington earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Pennsylvania State University in 1987 before going on to Northeastern University to complete her post-doctorate work. In 1991, she joined the New England Aquarium’s Edgerton Research laboratory. She began a course of work that led to the analysis of juvenile groundfish bycatch survival in Northwest Atlantic Fisheries. While at the Aquarium, Dr. Farrington also taught human genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology of the cell, as well as introductory biology courses through Northeastern University’s division for returning adults, University College.
  • Sanat Majumder, Ph.D.
    Sanat Majumder is a professor emeritus of biology at Westfield State College. While active, Professor Majumder taught a variety of courses, including environmental biology; population, food, and nutrition; and plant physiology. In addition to teaching at Westfield State College, Professor Majumder taught at Smith College and St. Louis University. As a post-doctoral fellow, Majumder’s research in radiation biology took him to Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Professor Majumder has published a book, The Drama of Man and Nature, as well as nearly 30 scientific papers. A native of India, Professor Majumder currently resides in Northampton, Massachusetts.
  • Les Kaufman, Ph.D.
    Les Kaufman is an associate professor of biology at Boston University. He also is a fellow at the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology and a research scholar at the New England Aquarium. Professor Kaufman earned his Ph.D. at John Hopkins in theoretical ecology and evolutionary biology in 1980. His research is in evolutionary ecology and applied research in marine conservation biology, where his focus is on various fish ecologies. In 1997, Professor Kaufman started a research and graduate training effort to encourage a switch from classical fisheries to ecosystem-based marine resource management. The project is active in New England, East Africa, Florida, California, and the tropical Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and is also engaged with the New England Fishery Management Council and the California Department of Fish and Game.

Program 8

  • Adrien Finzi, Ph.D.
    Adrien Finzi is an assistant professor in Boston University’s biology department. Professor Finzi earned his Ph.D. in 1996 at the University of Connecticut. His research interests include forest ecology, terrestrial biogeochemistry, and global change biology. Currently, his focus is in terrestrial biogeochemistry and global change biology. Specifically, he is investigating the effect of free-air CO2 enrichment on carbon-storage and nutrient cycling in a southern pine-hardwood forest. Professor Finzi is author or co-author on more than ten scientific papers.
  • Charles Tyler
    In 1989, Charles Tyler started work at the Professional Services Group, Inc., as an operations specialist on the Boston Harbor Project (BHP), where he contributed to operational planning and operational review and input to the conceptual and detailed design of the 1.27 billion-gallon-per-day wastewater facility on Deer Island. After working for over five years with the construction management firm on the BHP, Tyler “jumped the fence” and joined the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority as a project manager in the process group, a group of specialists who focused on punchlisting and construction turnover and start-up of the newly constructed facilities on Deer Island. Tyler, who began his career in wastewater operations in 1977, now works on operations and maintenance with technical and process issues in Deer Island’s effort to keep the huge facility operating optimally.
  • Nicky Sheats, Ph.D.
    Dr. Sheats received his Ph.D. in the department of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University in 2000, where his field of study was biological oceanography with a focus in stable isotope biogeochemistry. His doctoral dissertation focused on determining if sewage nitrogen was being incorporated into the food webs of the Delaware River Estuary and Massachusetts Bay. Currently Dr. Sheats is researching urban air pollution as a post-doctoral fellow at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Support Materials

The support materials for Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science are available here for download as PDF files.

Course Guide:


Track Your Understanding

One way to assess your own learning at the end of this course is to start by documenting what you know at the beginning. Below are questions related to the life science topics being addressed during this course. Answer them as best you can – this is not a test! At the final session, you’ll be able to track how your understandings have changed.

1. What distinguishes living things from dead and nonliving things?

2. How do scientists classify living things?

3. A new type of life form has been discovered. How could you tell whether it should be classified as an animal, plant, or something else?

4. There is a saying that “like begets like.” In the living world, we observe this as offspring that resemble parents and types of organisms that produce the same types. What ensures this continuity of life?

5. Describe the life cycle of a typical animal.

6. Describe the life cycle of a typical plant.

7. Distinguish between DNA, chromosomes, and genes.

8. What causes individuals of a species to vary from one another?

9. Explain the process of natural selection.

10. Describe the ideas underlying the theory of evolution.

11. What defines a species?

12. How does evolution result in new species?

13. Distinguish between producers, consumers, and decomposers.

14. How does energy travel through the living world?

15. How does matter travel through an ecosystem?

Series Directory

Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science


Produced by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-730-4