Site author Richard Steane
The BioTopics website gives access to interactive resource material, developed to support the learning and teaching of Biology at a variety of levels.


Background information about the content on BioTopics.co.uk


This material has been through a number of stages of development.

Originally it started out as printed worksheets for class and homework use, styled as study guides so as to assist my students in the intake and concretisation of knowledge required to pass the core Biology component of dual award science (DAS) and then the extra (exam board-specific) material needed for Biology as a full GCSE subject.

Some of it dates back to the first days of the National Curriculum. Other units were specifically aimed at various incarnations of GCSE syllabuses/specifications, but much of it is relevant to other UK and international exam boards. Some originally key stage 4 topics have now been devolved to key stage 3, and some higher GCSE level topics have effectively acted as a bridge to AS and A levels.


It transpired that this material was more successful when pupils were called on to make a (written) input, generally by filling in missing words in spaces, by writing explanatory sentences or paragraphs to show they had understood topics, or by drawing or labelling diagrams.

There are a number of tricky decisions to be made in this enterprise: the balance between provision of information as opposed to checking of comprehension (telling vs asking), degree of detail expected, use of pre-digested knowledge, acquisition of new information from textbooks, experimental conclusions and real life (challenging vs spoon feeding), dry topics, exam requirements and inspiring young minds (open vs closed).

Whilst setting the questions I tended to write out the sort of answer I was expecting, and then save them in such a way as to make them visible to me or staff working alongside me, but leaving spaces to allow students to make their own version so as to show the results of their own efforts.

Web conversion

It was fairly easy to make this material into web pages, either with gaps for missing answers, or with answers permanently on view - neither alternative being ideal.

It eventually transpired that using javascript it was possible to make web pages containing these "ideal" answers in a hidden form and then reveal them when the mouse cursor passed over the sections of the web pages. Originally this only worked with Internet Explorer and only in a rudimentary way with Netscape, which had pioneered many of the web's developments. It was less successful on other platforms which did not undergo continuous development, such as RISCOS machines on which much of the original development work had been done. Surprisingly, it was easier to do transformation between unlabelled and labelled diagrams than between invisible and visible text, and this worked on practically any javascript-enabled browser. This was the stage of achievement on a previous version of this site - the Spinneret website - which drew on analogies between the biological and the technological aspects of the web.

BioTopics improvements behind the scenes

A more universal technique for achieving this text conversion effect became available when most developing browsers incorporated universal web standards such as ECMAScript. Most of the files on display on this BioTopics site are the result of conversions to use more effective universal (hidden) javascript, whilst retaining substantially the same content material.

As the material was expanded to deal with more of the syllabus, it became increasingly more useful as on-line tutorials and revision sessions, as well as for backup to cover for pupil absence. It also became apparent that other academic world wide web users were making regular use of the material in various different ways. These include students/pupils and parents/carers, teachers/lecturers and trainees, and other more casual users.

I have also more recently extended this to cover 6th form topics, and I now support all of the most popular UK Biology specification at AS and A2 level.

Biochemical models

Initially through the use of a browser plug-in called Chime and then an open-source Java applet called JMOL, I have introduced students to 3-dimensional modelling of biological molecules, which is a real value-added concept, making good use of the interactive potential of computers. I have made a series of pages devoted to (more than 90) compounds of interest to Biologists.

However development work on this section has stalled since Java has come to be seen as a security risk on some computers, as well as its abandonment by some brands of computers in favour of other standards.

I have converted these files to use a different format - Jsmol, based on javascript - which does not suffer from the same problems as Java, although it is a little less responsive. However it is more accessible to tablet computers and other similar devices.