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That first University lecture on biological sciences

What to tell new Biological Science students in their first lecture? We are drowning in high-quality information, but need to teach how to find and evaluate information, and what to do with it. Social media now plays a part in this, and Practical classes are one of the greatest opportunities for learning.

Plant Cell Structure: a school wall painting in Ethiopia
Plant Cell Structure: a school wall painting in Ethiopia

I’ve been planning and considering what to tell the new Biological Science students in their first lecture, part of our first year module on Cell and Developmental Biology. How can my words (and notes for both myself and the students, masquerading as PowerPoint slides) help the students get through their first week at University, and then get the top first-class mark in two-and-three-quarters years time, before going on to stellar careers in their chosen direction? Every hour, I think there is a different priority!

It is interesting to see the equivalent lectures from other Universities which are posted on YouTube and which essentially cover similar material to my first lecture (including the administrative information which is needed) – for example from Berkeley. Bog Goldberg’s Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture and the Law at UCLA is another unique approach to lecturing, where his personality (including the ubiquitous Coke can) comes over so well in the video at with a more general course. I particularly liked parts of Professor Bob Weinberg’s Introduction to Biology at MIT at . In fact, I used a direct quotation in my lecture “Perhaps the biggest goal of this course … is not that you learn the names of all the organelles and cells but that you learn how to think in a scientific and rational way. … be able to think logically about scientific problems” since it encapsulates, succinctly, what I wanted to say. Harvard has some stunning visual artwork in its series with something called XVIVO [EDIT to link to maybe the primary video source 10 Oct] but without any information about what is seen: maybe a good practical exam would be to ask the class to annotate these animations either with captions or voice-over.

I thought a lot about a paper from Anka Mulder, President of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, noting the limited changes since the first Universities were founded nearly 1000 years ago ( She is right, I think, in noting that the role of Universities has changed little over this millennium: they always have (1) provided knowledge content, (2) offered a learning community that can help students understand the meaning of this content, and (3) certified students who prove that they have mastered this knowledge. The Cambridge UK College where I took my PhD and became a Fellow as my first job, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284 with the aim to be a place of “Education, Learning, Religion and Research”, a remarkably timeless ‘mission statement’; I often wonder how many meetings it took for the Founding fellows to come up with this, which words were considered and omitted, and whether they felt able to distinguish between learning and education.

In my lecture, I went on to emphasize just how much wonderful learning (teaching from the lecturer’s viewpoint!) material is available, in textbooks (and their fabulous associated websites, see eg and for the sites of two of the most widely used 1st year textbooks), in review articles, videos on YouTube, in Wikipedia, and in thousands of more and less structured websites, and not least from the OpenCourseWare Consortium ( ). Compared to even a decade ago, information is not hard to find, and much of it is presented in very clear, well organized ways. My view is that there really is no point in my lectures simply finding a good text and following it – and this goes for many faculty, particularly when the special skills of those lecturers in not in presenting other people’s information, but in researching at the frontiers of knowledge, where they have enormous expertise to pass on in showing approaches. I think we can help students with ways to find and filter good and coherent sources, and teach the processes needed for this filtering; another challenge that can be addressed in teaching is how to use all that information. Social media in my view certainly can help with the access, filtering and processing of information. A strawpoll showed that about 80% of my students had Facebook accounts, and a high 20% were on Google+. I will certainly be using social media extensively on the course – anybody can follow with the BS1003 search term on our new homebase of Google+. I did tell my students that diversity of approaches was important to embrace though – I expect social media will still be used be a small proportion of their lecturers, although I agree with The Guardian newspaper recently, “How Twitter will revolutionise academic research and teaching”  .

Undergraduate Practical Class for Cell Biology BS1003
Undergraduate Practical Class for Cell Biology BS1003

Practical classes are another area I emphasized as being so important in our courses – last year, I posted some of the parts in my first attempts at video editing, but this year I hope to update these and do more ( and Practicals – even in the context of a taught rather than research course – cover an enormous range of handling, observational, analytical and presentation skills and I wish they were a greater part of almost all courses. But, as widely debated even at the national level, the resources and costs for practical classes are enormous.

Anyway, the slides for my first lecture are on (, where I have given the title “Biology: First lecture for Cell and Developmental Biology” and comment “Prof Pat Heslop-Harrison’s introduction to the 1st year Undergraduate Cell and Developmental Biology Course, BS1003, University of Leicester. See my blog post about what is needed in University teaching 1000 years after the first University on (That first University Lecture)”. I’ve tried to include enough text that the content of my talk will  come over even without the words – a significant number of students will be added in the next few days with travel, visa, illness or other difficulties.

The final points I included in my opening lecture were, of course, enjoy your course, have fun reading around it, discuss it widely and think about the consequences of all the things you are learning about biology. Let me know if you think I am emphasizing the right things to cover in lectures and throughout the course!


Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.


  • After pointing our the importance of practicals in the Biology agree, and the national debates about their value and costs, I saw a tweet from our own AoBBlog Editor Alun Salt. He points to the need for student fieldwork in Archaeology degrees in an article “Archaeology degrees stuck in the (far distant) past” , where “Marilyn Palmer, emeritus professor of industrial archaeology at the University of Leicester, said she was unhappy that pressures on academics had in many cases led to reductions in fieldwork, since this tends to be what gets students “hooked” on the subject.”

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