You are here

The First Two Years

Exploring Biology in the First Year

Introductory Biology Course Sequences

Other Foundational Courses

Sequence of Courses: What to Take When

Exploring Biology in the First Year

Advisors for 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. Options include courses and beyond-the-classroom programs, including some that start the summer before you start at UW-Madison.

  • Exploring Biology (Biology 100): a two-credit course specifically designed for first-year students interested in the biosciences. It exposes students to the richness of bioscience research at UW–Madison, gives an overview of the "big ideas" of biology, and helps students learn more about career options in the biosciences. Students sign up for Exploring Biology at SOAR, just like any other course.
  • First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs): a learning community of about 20 students with similar interests who are enrolled in a cluster of classes together. The courses for each FIG are linked by a common theme. Some examples of themes are Bioenergy: Sustainability, Opportunities, and Challenges; Global Food Security; and The Physiology of Human Performance. Students sign up for FIGS at SOAR.
  • Wisconsin Experience Seminar (CP 125): a one-credit course open to all new freshmen and transfer students (in designated sections) that will complement the rest of your coursework, familiarizing you with the university, life as a new student, and campus resources.  Students who enroll in this course tend to report greater satisfaction with their first-year at UW–Madison. Students sign-up for CP 125 at SOAR.

Exploring a Possible Major

Some majors have first-year courses affiliated with their academic offerings, which can be a great way of exploring a subject to see if you are interested in further study. Be on the look-out for these courses at SOAR, and ask your advisor! 

Beyond the Classroom

  • Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URS): helps first-year undergraduates get hands-on experience in research or other creative endeavors by working closely with UW faculty and research staff. This experience is a two-semester-long commitment with applications opening in May for the Fall term. Students need to apply to the program directly for admission.
  • Creating Excellence in Leadership in Science (CELS): a mentoring program for undergraduate students at UW–Madison, founded by the CMB (Cellular and Molecular Biology) Graduate Program Diversity Committee. The program has multiple goals, including introducing undergraduate students in the biological sciences to the culture of science and the laboratory research atmosphere and establishing a mentoring relationship with graduate students pursuing their Ph.D. in the biological sciences. For more information or to apply, email
  • Wisconsin Basecamp: UW–Madison’s optional wilderness-based orientation program for incoming freshmen and transfer students. The self-supporting program offers a variety of outdoor-based trips for students the summer before they start at UW-Madison.

Introductory Biology Course Sequences

There are three different introductory biology sequences offered at UW-Madison:

  • Biocore
  • Botany/Zoology 151 and 152
  • 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 who have earned a 4 or 5 on the advanced placement (AP) biology test will receive credit for Zoology 151. Credit in Zoology 151 does not preclude taking the Biocore sequence.

Botany/Zoology/Biology 151 & 152

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. Enrollment is 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.

Key Features:

  • 10-credit, 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

Zoology/Biology 101 & 102, Botany/Biology 130

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. Enrollment 600-700 students per semester.

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. Enrollment is 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.

Key Features:

  • Total Credits: 10 credits (101 is 3 credits; 102 is 2 credits; 130 is 5 credits)
  • 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.
  • top of page

Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore), an Honors Program

Biocore is is a four-semester lecture and laboratory sequence beginning in sophomore year, intended for students seeking honors biology coursework at the introductory to intermediate level. It includes broad, in-depth, integrated biology coursework intended for any biological science major. Students must apply to the program, and there are prerequisite requirements of general chemistry and one semster of calculus (or equivalent).

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. First-year students 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.

Key Features:

  • Total Credits: 18 (Honors) credits
  • 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

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.

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.