UNIT 1: What is Life?
How do we Investigate it?

Stage 1 – Desired Results

Performance Expectations

  • Develop and use a model to illustrate the hierarchical organization of interacting systems across the scales of molecules, organisms, and biospheres.
  • Construct an evidence-based explanation for how biological structures and processes can give rise to living organisms.
  • Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis.

As an introduction to biology, this unit serves to initiate students in scientific thinking, as well as identity formation and class collaboration. Here students will learn the main components defining living organisms, and the core areas of investigation within the life sciences. They will also learn the tools and techniques involved in performing scientific investigation. Thus, broadly, all four of the LS Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) are discussed -- then to be led into LS-1: Molecules to Organisms.

Topics at a Glance

  • Intro to Life and the Life Sciences: Classroom Ecosystems and Core Ideas
  • Learning (About Learning About) Biology
  • The Scientific Method: Tools for Inquiry, for Life
  • Characteristics and Processes of Living Things

Enduring Understandings 

  • Biology is an incredibly vast and diverse field dedicated to the scientific study of life.
  • This study takes place at many scales, from molecules to organisms to entire worlds.
  • Life is a phenomenon and characteristic resulting from specific biological processes.
  • The scientific method can be used to investigate problems both inside and outside of biology.

Essential Questions

  • What do you look for in school? What makes a successful classroom?
  • What does life mean to you? What does it look like?
  • What is life? What does it mean to be alive?
  • What does it mean to know something? What tools can we use to acquire and demonstrate knowledge?

 Science & Engineering Practices

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Crosscutting Concepts

Developing and Using Models

  • Develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate the
    relationships between systems or between components of a
    system. (HS-LS1-2)

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations

  • Plan and conduct an investigation individually and
    collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for
    evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and
    accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements
    and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g.,
    number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design
    accordingly. (HS-LS1-3)

Structure and Function

  • Systems of specialized cells within organisms help them perform the essential functions of life. (HS-LS1-1)
  • Multicellular organisms have a hierarchical structural organization, in which any one system is made up of numerous parts and is itself a component of the next level. (HS-LS1-2)
  • Feedback mechanisms maintain a living system’s internal conditions within certain limits and mediate behaviors, allowing it to remain alive and functional even as external conditions change within some range. Feedback mechanisms can encourage (through positive feedback) or discourage (negative feedback) what is going on inside the living system. (HS-LS1-3)

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

  • Life, and the study of life, exists and different scales.
  • Biologists investigate life both micro and macroscopically, from the scales of molecules to organisms to biospheres.


  • Patterns across living organisms exist in the form of biological structures and processes.

Structure and Function

  • The way an object is shaped or structured determines many of its properties and functions.
  • Cellular and molecular structures will determine the overall properties of tissue and organismal function.
  • Many of these structures and functions can be linked as biological substrates for the phenomenon of life.

ELA & Math Standards:

  • RST.11-12.1 - Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account. (HS-LS1-1)
  • SL.11-12.5 - Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest. (HS-LS1-2)
  • WHST.11-12.7 - Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (HS-LS1-3)
  • WHST.11-12.8 - Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation. (HS-LS1-3)
  • WHST.11-12.9 - Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research. (HS-LS1-1)
  • WHST.9-12.2 - Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. (HS-LS1-1)

Stage 2 – Assessment Evidence

Performance Task(s)

  • Develop and use an evidence-based model to illustrate a biological structure or process, and how it serves as a characteristic for life among organisms and physical matter.
  • Conduct an investigation on a biological artifact of your choice, and collaborate with a peer to make observations on the subject. Make inferences based on your observations, and share them with the class.

Diagnostic/Formative Evidence:

  • Address misconceptions at beginning of lesson (pair share/small group discussions).
  • Icebreakers: This Or That, Forced Choices, etc. (also to assess student backgrounds and comfort with subject area).
  • Socratic seminars, gallery walks to discuss broader Essential Questions.
  • For syllabus/classroom expectations: co-building, pair share discussion, visual reminders + continual recall.
  • Class surveys + questionnaires

Stage 3 – Learning Plan / Road Map


Essential Questions



Learning Activities


Why should we learn and do science? What makes a successful science classroom?


Intro to biology and life sciences;
Classroom expectations;
Student surveys (HW)

Icebreaker (forced choices); Syllabus discussion; Classroom expectations module


What does it mean to know something? How do we solve problems scientifically?


Observations vs inferences; Knowing vs understanding; note-taking strategies;

Scientific Method

Group discussion (ways of knowing, ways of doing science); lesson on note-taking strategies; Mystery Boxes lab


What is life? What does it mean to be alive?

HS-LS-1 through HS-LS-4

Characteristics of life: structures, processes, interactions, and iterations

engage with Kurzgesagt video; explore with discussion on delineations; explain characteristics; expand in groups


How do cells act as building blocks for life?


First look: cellular structure and function; sub-cellular organelles and biomolecules

pair share; direct instruction; Tour of the Cell; assign project (tissue sampling)


How diverse are we? What makes us alike and different?

HS-LS-1, HS-LS-3, HS-LS-4

Organismal diversity; hierarchy of cell organization; structure and function

Share project data; peer review; share insights as class; discuss findings

Lesson 3: Essential Characteristics of Life


In this lesson, students confront one of the most enduring questions in the life sciences: What are the biological underpinnings of life? This serves to introduce them to inquiry as a scientific practice, as well as to foundational concepts in biology. As a lesson in the first week in a 9th grade classroom, this also serves to enhance classroom collaboration, as students learn to participate in discussions and define their own identities. This lesson can also be tied to other disciplines, in which students think about identity, individual beings, and the parts that shape the whole. Specifically in a biology framework, this is the third of five lessons, which will then lead into a unit on Cells.


LS1.A.1: Systems of specialized cells within organisms help them perform the essential functions of life.

LS1.A.4: Feedback mechanisms maintain a living system’s internal conditions within certain limits and mediate behaviors, allowing it to remain alive and functional even as external conditions change within some range.

Enduring Understandings 

  • Life is a phenomenon and characteristic resulting from specific biological processes.
  • All living things are made up of cells, which serve as the structural and functional building blocks of life.
  •  Through foundational cellular and subcellular structures, organisms can respond and adapt to the environment through processes like metabolism, homeostasis, and natural selection.

Essential Questions

  • What is life? What are the ways to be alive?
  • What biological structures contribute to the functions necessary for life?
  • How do organisms interact with the environment in order to stay alive?


Integrating Differentiated Instruction:




Teacher will...

Students will...

5 min


Assign DO NOW: split into pairs and answer EQs (What is life? What are the ways to be alive?)

Pair share DO NOW activity. Discuss EQs as a class.

15 min


Pose question: What are the differences between living and non-living things? (What is the difference between me and a rock?) Open up to socratic seminar, and scaffold/facilitate as necessary.

Define delineations and characteristics among living things. Expected misconception: all living things move. Critical step: cell theory and hierarchy.

15 min


Provide direct instruction: characteristics of living things; cell theory, cell/tissue/etc hierarchy, scales of life; processes resulting from cellular and sub-cellular structures.

Take notes, practicing chosen note-taking method from previous lesson (Cornell, mind map, etc).

10 min


Show Kurzgesagt video. Ask students to write down 3+ questions they’d like to have answered in the future.

Watch video. Fill out KWLQ charts.

5 min


Allow students to fill out exit tickets. Provide 1-on-1 help as needed.

Finalize and turn in exit tickets. Idle discussion of Qs.

Questions for Implementation:

UNIT PLANNING: Narrative and Rationale

Insights from Previous Experiences in Biology Education

In my summer fieldwork as a student teacher, I volunteered at a scholars program aimed to give disadvantaged youth a leg up in STEM education. The chemistry, physics, and math classes I observed were excellent, each providing differentiated and hands-on instruction for a variety of learners. The biology class, however, was far more disappointing--largely because there was no actual class. Since there were only two students taking biology this year, they weren’t set up with a classroom instructor. Instead, they were given worksheets and chromebooks, and placed at the back of a chemistry class. Not OK, but there was no other option at the time. So—although I was officially only involved with the program as an observer—I jumped on the chance to give these kids some extra help.


The worksheets my students were assigned attempted to cover foundational units in biology, jumping from cells to DNA, energy, and evolution one unit per lesson. In most classrooms, students spend weeks on these concepts. But here, we only had 45 minutes. And that’s only when my class even showed up on time—or at all. The worksheets themselves were unscaffolded, uninspiring, and one-dimensional in their content coverage. On our first day together, for example, my students came to me with worksheets on mitosis and meiosis. They were never given explanation on the concepts. To figure things out, there were instructed to simply solve quiz questions on KhanAcademy. No introductions, no explanations, not even any lectures. This was unacceptable to me, but for them it was a typical day.

I’m still deeply frustrated at the way this class was run. This was supposed to be a rigorous program, designed to excite and prepare students for upcoming STEM courses. Instead, this aspect of the program only seemed to further disenfranchise them from math and science. There are many reasons for this, but I think one prominent one was in the lack of curriculum and instruction offered. In these four lessons, my students were supposed to have covered the entire spectrum of biology—which I actually think could have been done, if we had talked about true foundations! Instead, we were tasked with answering scattered, insular pieces of the curriculum. This Is a common problem I see in science classrooms: focusing on prescribed content rather than on essential understandings.

One curriculum method I’m investigating directly addresses this problem, and flips it on hits head. Fittingly, it’s called backwards design! But I think it’s a much more effective approach to teaching. In backwards design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2000), curriculum is foremost structured by considering essential understandings: what we want students to take with them 20, 40 years from now. Regarding cells, for example, I don’t need my students to know every single step and molecule in mitosis and meiosis. I want them to understand, more broadly, the importance of cells, and how they unite all species of life as building blocks. I want them to imagine how a slew of inanimate chemicals can come together to make something alive, and how these formations can be intricately and beautifully structured. From there, then I can design my lesson plans.

Backwards Design and Differentiated Instruction as a Framework for Unit Planning

As a standards model, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) stand out in their three-dimensional approach to learning. Rather than encouraging teachers and students to pursue memorization of facts, to which previous standards seem to have led, the NGSS promote science education as a practice of inquiry and explanation. In differentiating the standards across disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts within the sciences, the NGSS ultimately allow for deeper understanding of relevant content and the development of applicable skills to everyday life.


In my sample unit plan, I’ve combined the NGSS with Tomlinson and McTighe’s integrated model of Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction (UbD/DI). Here, curriculum planning is organized into three stages: desired results, acceptable evidence, and learning experiences. In the spirit of “beginning with the end in mind” (Covey 1989), I first identify which learning results are the most important for my students. As the authors write—“What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What content is [truly] worthy of understanding?” (Tomlinson and McTighe, 2006, p. 27-29). These results, inspired by essential questions (ie, “What is life? How do we investigate it?”), serve as the best starting point for declaring priorities in curriculum plans.


Next, I determine the acceptable evidence I wish to assess. I want to ensure that, in addressing a diverse class of learners, I teach in a manner that provides opportunities to all my students. I implement variety of methods here. For example, in demonstrating knowledge of cellular structures and processes, students can effectively communicate in a variety of modes (as per Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences). I thus allow for student-determined modes of assessment, from a table of diversified written/visual/oral options (Tomlinson and McTighe, 2006, pg. 74, Fig. 5.4, 5.5.)  Importantly, in lieu of solely summative assessment, I also plan to incorporate diagnostic and formative measures of assessment, declaring and providing feedback on learning objectives early and consistently throughout the course of the unit. Self-assessment and metacognitive strategies (Bransford et al, 2000) seem to be especially effective for students, and I plan to include reflection questions such as “What do you really understand?”, “What questions/uncertainties do you still have?”, and “What grade/score do you deserve? Why?” (Tomlinson and McTighe, p. 79-80) in my identities module and throughout my curriculum. I expect this approach to yield multifaceted gains in learning outcomes, stemming from ownership of learning; increased self-worth; attention towards strengths, deficits, and modes of intelligence; and overall engagement.


I also hope to reflect aspects of critical pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy in this approach, as per Delpit, Ladson-Billings, and Noguera. This takes place in assessment, but more significantly in instruction and classroom learning experiences themselves. I address DI in methods such as different modes of instruction (auditory, written, and visual) and different student groupings (whole-class, small group, pair-share format). This is not only to provide educational access to students with different learning styles and learning needs, but also to address racialized education and achievement gaps. In another method towards building culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995), I incorporate the identities of women, POCs, and other minorities that might otherwise be absent from science curricula. I include famous female scientists like Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie, and Jane Goodall, and also (more importantly) discuss inequity in science: racial, sexual, and gender discrimination in the science workforce and in academia and medicine, and injustices such as the privacy and commercial rights violated in the immortalization of the HeLa cell line. More directly, whereas minority students might enter learning and assessment environments with anxiety and disenfranchisement due to stereotype threat (Steele, 1997), for instance, explicitly discussing issues of race and growth vs fixed mindsets (Dweck, 2010) can aid in subverting these inequities. Delpit develops this notion further in her models of direct instruction and the culture of power. In, again, explicitly discussing issues of injustice and inequity, and then following up by equipping students with tools and practices for success, “teach[ing] the codes needed to participate fully in [mainstream] American life… within the context of meaningful communicative endeavors” (Delpit, 1998, p. 296), then I as an educator can aim to serve as an agent of positive change in schools and society. As a model that stresses the importance of clear learning essentials as well as student responsibility and equity, I believe UbD/DI to act as a powerful framework for my curriculum.

 Deciding the Topic and Essential Questions

In choosing a first unit for my course, in line with UbD/DI, I’ve thought about which enduring understandings I want my students to keep. For one, I want my students to recognize the sense of wonder that accompanies the study of life: for as we learn more about the world around us -- and the worlds within us -- we often derive meaning. This drive for knowledge and understanding is the vehicle by which we achieve advancements in science and technology, but the act itself of wondering and deriving meaning is also inherently fulfilling. Thus, it is an aspect of science education I wish not to ignore. As a precursor to learning science in my classroom, I also want to ensure my students are thinking scientifically. I want them to think like scientists, and in line with the same questions that drove the research that we discuss today. In short, I want my students to wonder first. Then, they shall learn.


So, which essential questions (EQs) should drive a young high schooler’s first exposure to the sciences? I propose the following: What is life? How do we investigate it? These EQs serve three purposes. First, in accordance with the NGSS, they act as an introduction to many of the foundational themes and practices within biology. By thinking about the physical underpinnings that give rise to the greater phenomenon of life, students can discuss broad themes and disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) such as structure and function (HS-LS1), ecosystem interactions and dynamics (HS-LS2), and hereditary inheritance and variation of traits (HS-LS3). Thus, through these EQs, students can be introduced to a series of ideas very much at the heart of biology.


Second, these EQs act as cross-disciplinary and directly relevant forms of pedagogy. These questions, in more philosophical frameworks, are ideas often posed by adolescents as they learn to navigate their environment and develop self-identities. Though very much a unit on biology and the life sciences, I anticipate discussion on student life and student identity to be useful as a social and a classroom-building tool. In pursuit of fostering connections to and across students, sharing these personal thoughts and conceptions -- though not directly related to biology -- should lead to greater student investment and engagement. The timing and framework of an introductory unit should be a particularly fitting placement for such discussions.

Finally, through the second EQ, How do we investigate life?, students are quickly introduced to practices and metacognitive frameworks of science and engineering. Here, in analyzing the scientific method and strategies for inquiry, students can begin to develop NGSS practices such as asking questions and defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations, and analyzing and interpreting data. In addition to the DCIs listed above, these practices serve to equip students with lasting skills to navigate life and the workforce outside the classroom and beyond.


References Cited:

Bransford, Brown, Cocking (2001). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.


Delpit, L. (1998). The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Helping Other People’s Children. Harvard Educational Review, August 1988.


Dweck, C. S. (2010). Mind-Sets and Equitable Education. Principal Leadership, 10(5): 26-29.


Gardner, Howard (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy, American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.


"Next Generation Science Standards". Retrieved August 17, 2017.


Tomlinson, C. & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia.


 Wiggins and McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design. Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall.