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Sewing seeds of enquiry

Jackie Hardie dissects a selection of A-level biology texts that focus on particular syllabus modules.

Foundation Biology, By Dennis Taylor and Mary Jones, Cambridge University Press, Pounds 7.95 0 52142199 3

Biochemistry for Advanced Biology, By Susan Aldridge, Cambridge University Press, Student's book Pounds 8.950 521 43781 4

Practical Guide Pounds 250 521 43782 2, Advanced Biology Revision handbook, By W R Pickering, Oxford University Press Pounds 7.50. 0 19 914583 0

Modular A-level syllabuses are proving so popular that it is no surprise to find books published for particu-lar courses. Foundation Biology is part of the Cambridge Modular Science series and it covers material from the common A-level core and thus is ideally suited to the UCLES Science and Biology modules. The contents deal with cell structure, division, biological molecules, membranes, enzymes and control and co-ordination in organisms.

Its 98 pages are packed with full-colour illustrations, but the design of each page is such that the reader never feels overwhelmed by the mass of detail or density of text. This is important in a book that is likely to be the first used by students after their relatively friendly GCSE texts.

Each chapter is carefully structured and begins with an overview of what the reader should be able to do after reading it, then the text with self-assessment questions (answers at the back), a summary and more questions of a synoptic type. The juxtaposition of the illustrations and text is a model of clarity and the chapter on nuclear and cell division is one of the most outstanding anyone will have seen for this level of study. Photomicrographs are clear, captions cogent and annotated drawings are easy to follow. Even though it is aimed at 16-plus, it would be a useful resource for students at level 9 or 10 in GCSE.

Many post-16 courses contain biochemistry or biotechnology options and it is for these that Susan Aldridge's Biochemistry for Advanced Biology has been written. It covers the demands of A-level but also BTEC.

She aims to introduce students to biochemical principles, emphasising practical applications and keeping chemical equations to a minimum, so she covers proteins, nucleic acids, photosynthesis, respiration, genes and DNA technology. However, compared with Foundation Biology the presentation is dull and uninspiring.

The book is in black and white and some overprinting of labels on photomicrographs (for example, the chloroplast on page 90 and the bacillus on page 14) does not help.

Practical Biology for Advanced Level is a companion volume providing 18 exercises arranged in the same sequence as in the text, so there are frequent cross-references to chapters and pages.

Each experiment has an aim, introduction, list of equipment, procedure (illustrated where necessary), questions and also a page for the teacher and technician - giving guidance on preparations, answers to questions and thoughts on assessment.

Some teachers may not appreciate having such information in a pupil text. There's help on where to buy the more unusual chemicals and reagents and also instructions on preparing them. So if you want to buy Murashige and Skoog medium, you are given its supplier, but you may choose to make it, if you have the 22 ingredients required, a very sensitive chemical balance and a highly skilled technician with lots of time.

There are some familiar investigations - staining cells and the photosynthesis of Elodea - but also some that are new and worth a try, such as extracting DNA from onions and polyphenol oxidase from mushrooms. One or two attempts are made at open-ended investigations but there is no real effort to buildin the investigatory work of SC1 of GCSE.

Advanced Biology Revision Handbook contains more than 180 fully annotated diagrams covering all major syllabuses and can be used alongside texts, notes and investigations in A, AS, IB and GNVQ courses. It has all the basic information on topics such as the structure of the lung, DNA replication and chromosomes, stomata and cohesion theory.

What is meant by basic can be shown using the page on plant growth substances. Here against a background of outline drawings of trees, shrubs and herbs are boxes containing the names of the substances (auxins, cytokinins etc) with brief descriptions of what they do in nature and how humans have adapted their functions (eg auxins used as defoliants in the Vietnam war);there is a diagrame of a generalised dicot with annotations describing the processes affected by plant growth hormones. It will be auseful revision aid provided the reader has some grasp of the processes described. For instance, one statement is "Stomatal closure under stress may be promoted by abcissic acid".

You can learn that, but you would have to understand the part played by the stomata in the life of the plant, and also where they are found, in order to grasp the significance of the statement. The pages, each devoted to a different topic, also provide useful summaries.

Jackie Hardie is deputy head of the Latymer School, north London.

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