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Introductory Biology Courses

Almost all of the biological sciences majors require an introductory biology course sequence, as well as other foundational courses like math, chemistry, and physics. For most of these requirements, there are multiple options. This page is designed to help you get started understanding your options so you can decide which ones are best for you and when to take them. Your advisor can also help you make informed decisions about your course of study. Explore the resources on this page to find out about:

Exploring Biology in the First Year

Many (but not all) bioscience majors encourage students to take math and chemistry their first year and postpone their introductory sequence until their second year. For students postponing their introductory sequence, finding a way to stay engaged with biology and keep nourishing that passion for the life sciences in the first year can be important.

If you are interested in finding out more about the breadth of biological sciences options and careers before you enroll in an introductory sequence, or if you just want to stay engaged in the subject you love during your first year, consider Exploring Biology, a 2-credit course designed for first-year students. This course is not required for any major, but it will fulfill the CALS Freshman Seminar requirement.

If you want to explore biology in your first year as part of a learning community, consider joining a First-Year Interest Group. Being in a FIG allows you to meet other students with similar interests and connect with faculty in a small seminar environment. Students in a FIG take 3 courses in a cohort of 20-24 students. Most FIGs will have a freshmen seminar course (i.e. Global Food Security, Medical Imaging, Vision: Bridging Science and Culture) and an additional 2 courses in related disciplines (Chemistry, Math, Psychology, etc.) Exploring Biology has some of its discussion sections paired with related curricula.

Other majors have freshmen-level courses affiliated with their academic offerings. Be on the look-out for these courses at SOAR, ask your advisor! Some of these courses include: Freshmen Seminar in Biochemistry (Biochem 375), Freshmen Seminar in Genetics (Genetics 375), Orientation to Wildlife Ecology (F&WE 101), and Topics & Careers in Vet Sci (Path-Bio 150). 

Introductory Biology Course Sequences

There are three different introductory biology sequences offered at UW-Madison: Biocore; Botany/Zoology 151 and 152; and Zoology 101 and 102 and Botany 130. Each series has numerous key features and intended audiences associated with its curriculum. Some majors on campus may have a preferred series and it would be best to speak with an advisor from that major if you questions concerning a particular major. NOTE: Students entering UW-Madison summer of 2013 onward and who have earned a 4 or 5 on the advanced placement (AP) biology test will receive credit for Zoology151. Credit in Zoology 151 does not preclude taking Biocore sequence.

Botany/Zoology/Biology 151 & 152

Course website: http://www.zoology.wisc.edu/courses/151-152/index.html

Total Credits: 10 credits

Enrollment: 1000-1200 students per semester in 151-152 combined. The sequence can be started in the fall or spring semester. It is open to first-year students but has limited enrollment.

Intended Audience: Introductory Biology 151-152 is a two-semester integrated introductory biology sequence and is recommended for many majors in the biological science. The sequence exposes students to basic biological concepts and phenomena and prepares students for upper level courses in biological science and scientific thought.

Key Features:

    • Two-semester sequence for bioscience majors across campus.
    • Discussion sections emphasize understanding and working with the major biological concepts presented in lecture using cooperative and small group learning techniques
    • Laboratory sections introduce students to the thought processes of science using open-ended investigative labs
    • In 152 labs, students conduct an independent project electing to do either mentored research or a meta-analysis of an open question in the literature. Students who enter 152 without taking 151 on campus (either AP or transfer credit) should learn about the independent project, especially if wanting to pursue the mentored research option.
    • 152 labs, in particular the independent projects, are writing intensive and provide Comm B credit.
    • Peer learning sessions are available to 151/153 and 152 students
    • Many advisors who recommend this sequence instead of Botany 130 and Zoology 101 say this two-semester sequence is more comprehensive than the combination of two one-semester courses
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Zoology/Biology 101 & 102, Botany/Biology 130

Course websites Total Credits: 10 credits (101 is 3 credits; 102 is 2 credits; 130 is 5 credits)

Enrollment: 800-900 students per semester in 101; 600-700 students per semester in 102; 190-200 per semester in 130; 101, Animal Biology, is offered both fall and spring semesters and during the summer session. It is open to first-year students. 130 is offered during both fall and spring semesters. Greater emphasis is placed on ecology and taxonomy in the fall.

Intended Audience: Zoology 101 is a large introductory zoology course that addresses an audience of beginning students with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Topics covered include: cell structure and organization; genetics; molecular biology; development; the chemistry of biology; the structure and function of physiological systems; evolution behavior and ecology; contemporary issues. A 2-credit lab (Zoology 102) supplements and enhances the topical considerations of Zoology 101. The lab is required by many programs and departments and is generally take concurrently with the lecture by about 10% of the students. Botany 130 is a one-semester course focusing on organisms studied by botanists, including bacteria fungi, algae, and plants. Topics include cell and molecular biology, metabolism, plant structure-function, genetics, evolution and ecology. It is especially appropriate for plant science majors. The course includes two two-hour labs per week, which focus on direct observation and manipulation of biological materials.

Key Features:

  • 101/102 offer one-semester course in Animal Biology for both biological sciences majors and non-majors looking for biological science breadth course.
  • Optional discussion sections available
  • 102 Laboratories introduce students to the diversity of organisms on earth, key features of mammalian physiology and some of the thought processes of science in several open-ended investigative labs.
  • 130 offers a one semester course for majors in plant sciences and for students seeking a biological sciences breadth course.
  • In 130, lecture, discussion and lab are integrated and provide students with a broad overview of plant structure and function as well as plant diversity and ecology
  • Many advisors consider this sequence to be an excellent introduction for students who know they are interested in studying plants.
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Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore)

Program website: http://www.biocore.wisc.edu/

Total Credits: 18 (Honors) credits

Enrollment/Application: ~120-140 students in each cohort (two cohorts in progress concurrently during academic year). Usually more students want to take Biocore than the program can accommodate. Most students start Biocore in the fall of their sophomore year after completing the prerequisites in general chemistry and math their freshman year. Students must apply to the program early in the spring semester prior to the semester they intend to begin Biocore. Freshmen planning to begin Biocore their sophomore year must apply in January of their freshman year. Applications are available in the Biocore Office (345 Noland Hall, 262-5979). Completed applications must be submitted to the Biocore Admissions Committee by mid-March. The Admissions Committee notifies those admitted to Biocore by the start of registration in April.

Intended Audience: Students seeking honors biology coursework at the introductory to intermediate level. Four-semester lecture and laboratory sequence beginning in sophomore year. Broad, in-depth, integrated biology coursework intended for any biological science major. Application based, with prerequisite requirements of general chemistry and one semster of calculus (or equivalent).

Key Features:

  • Introductory to intermediate level courses that students progress through together as a cohort concluding with capstone course
  • Heavy emphasis on process of science with research focused lab and lecture curriculum
  • Inquiry-based, writing intensive labs
  • Small, supportive learning community
  • Extended learning opportunities beyond courses including Biocore peer mentoring, Biocore Outreach Ambassadors, and directed study in Biocore Prairie or Cell Biology/Physiology Lab
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AP Biology Exam Credit

Several alternatives are available to you when you take your first biology course and you should see your advisor before you make your choice. If your AP Biology exam score was a "3," it would be wise to start with the first course in one of the introductory biology sequences. Consult with your academic advisor about the appropriate sequence. Students who received a "4" or a "5" on the AP Biology exam may be able to follow an acceerated introductory biology path. Students with such scores should talk to an academic advisor about the possibility of bypassing Biology 151 or Zoology 101-102 and enrolling in Biology 152 or Botany 130. The Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore) sequence is also an excellent option for students with a strong background in biology.

Other Foundational Courses

Most majors within the biological sciences have similar requirements for introductory biology, chemistry, and math. Students who work on fulfilling these requirements during their freshman and sophomore years need not feel they are locking themselves into a decision about a major; these basic college courses are good preparation for almost any science major.

When several courses (or course sequences) can be used to meet a requirement of a major, give careful consideration to your course selection. It is often a good strategy to take the most comprehensive and demanding course available. Taking the most rigorous course you are prepared for will maximize your options for an undergraduate major, career choices and postgraduate studies.

General Chemistry

For information on choosing the most appropriate general chemistry course, see the Chemistry section of the Undergraduate Catalog.

Note: Chemistry 108, a one-semester survey course, is not a good choice for most potential biology majors. Most majors require or recommend a full year (two semesters) of general chemistry.


Most advisors encourage students to take math their freshman year. The Mathematics Department uses placement tests to determine which mathematics course you may take initially. For information on math placement and choosing a math course, see the math section in the Undergraduate Catalog.

Note: Math 221 is often recommended over Math 211. Some majors accept either course to fulfill the calculus requirements, but many accept only Math 221.


For information on choosing the most appropriate physics course, see the Physics section in the Undergraduate Catalog.

Note: Calculus-based physics (i.e., Physics 201-202 or Physics 207-208) is required for some biology majors.

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Sequence of Courses: What to Take When

The following provides a general overview of when the basic math and science courses are usually taken:

During the First Year:

  • Most students fulfill their general chemistry and math requirements.
  • Some students take all or part of their introductory biology sequence.
  • Students who have decided to take introductory biology in their second year may decide to take Exploring Biology in the first year.

During the Second Year:

  • Some students (those who did not take it as first-years) take their introductory biology sequence.
  • Many students take organic chemistry (if required).
  • Some students take physics.

During the Third Year:

  • Many students take physics.
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