University of Cambridge



Natural Sciences course outline
Year 1 (Part IA)

Broadening your horizons, exploring new subjects, confirming your choices

In your first year (Part IA), you study three experimental sciences (from a choice of eight, 1-8 below) plus one paper in mathematics (from a choice of three, 9-11).

You choose your subjects at the start of the first term in discussion with your Director of Studies, but you should indicate in your SAQ whether your interests lie broadly in biological or physical sciences. The choice isn't absolute, and many students change direction before they start or as they progress.

For each option, you usually have three hours of lectures, some practical work and one supervision per week. Assessment varies depending on the option but always includes written examinations. There may also be practical examinations or continuous assessment of practical work.

Further information about the options, and the various teaching and assessment methods can be found on the Natural Sciences website.

1. Biology of Cells

Highly desirable A Level Chemistry
Useful A Level Biology

A Level Biology isn't essential but if you've taken it you'll already have met some of the material we cover in more depth in this option.

How do cells perform the vast range of functions required in living organisms? Biology of Cells introduces you to cell and molecular biology and builds on the recent huge advances in cell biology. It looks at how cells are constructed, organised and how they work; macromolecules, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, development and cell communication.

This option is for students who wish to explore the topical and rapidly advancing fields of cell biology, genetics and bioinformatics. It is also taken by many physical sciences students who wish to explore cell biology and genetics.

Please note that it's not possible to combine the Biology of Cells and Computer Science options.


2. Chemistry

Essential A Level Chemistry (A Level Mathematics is essential to continue to Chemistry A in Part IB)
Highly desirable AS/A Level Mathematics

Chemistry is concerned with how and why molecules form, and what determines their properties and the way they react.

This kind of understanding helps chemists in designing and synthesising new molecules which have specific properties, and also sheds light on many other areas of science.

In this option, you begin to learn about the key concepts and theories which help us to understand chemistry, and explore how these ideas can be used to rationalise a wide range of molecular phenomena.

The subject contains a lot of material that's relevant to other options in Natural Sciences, as well as providing a firm basis for more advanced study in chemistry.


3. Computer Science

Essential A Level Mathematics
Useful AS/A Level Further Mathematics and/or Physics
No previous subject knowledge is necessary but some understanding of programming may be helpful.

Computer science is becoming as essential to science as mathematics. Whole disciplines, from particle physics to genomics, are now dependent on computers for data analysis.

In this option, you explore the theoretical and practical foundations of computer science. It challenges you to find solutions to interesting problems, and provides the programming skills needed to explore those solutions.

The option surveys the entire field before concentrating on programming skills (in ML and Java), algorithm design and analysis, and floating point and numerical computation.

If you wish to continue with computer science you can switch to the Computer Science course at the end of your first year.

Please note that it's not possible to combine the Computer Science and Biology of Cells options.


4. Earth Sciences

No previous subject knowledge is necessary.

Earth Sciences introduces how our planet works – the processes and properties of the Earth. It covers how the Earth formed, the forces behind plate tectonics, biological evolution, and how the physics and chemistry of rocks reveal the story of Earth's interior.

Earth Sciences is also about natural hazards: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides. Fossils and isotopes record past changes in climate, sea level and ocean currents, offering answers to the urgent problem of climate change. Other concerns include finding water, coal, oil and minerals.

Practical experience is gained in the laboratory classes and on a one-week field course in Scotland.

Earth Sciences leads onto a broad range of attractive geological careers, and offers a wider perspective for other sciences and the world around us. For an introduction to the course, watch the film on the Department website.


5. Evolution and Behaviour

Highly desirable A Level Biology

This option covers the full range of biology disciplines and lays the foundation for the study of Cell and Developmental Biology, Ecology, Genetics, Plant Sciences, Psychology and Zoology.

You're introduced to the major principles of evolutionary theory, and explore the origins, evolution and diversity of life on Earth; and major transitions such as the origin of eukaryotes and multicellularity using new and fast-evolving methods and techniques.

The second half of the option explores animal behaviour in an evolutionary context, including the evolution of sociality, culture and intelligence; comparative studies of learning and memory; the evolution and behaviour of primates and humans; and evolutionary psychology.

You develop practical biological skills through practical classes and a field course.

By the end of the year, we hope that you'll agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-75) that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.'


6. Materials Science

Highly desirable A Level Mathematics, and either Chemistry or Physics
No previous subject knowledge is necessary.

Materials Science involves the study of the physics and chemistry of matter, focusing on the link between the structure of materials and their properties in an effort to develop new and improved materials for advanced technological applications.

This option covers a wide range of topics, including the study of materials on an atomic scale using diffraction techniques, how liquid-crystal displays work, how biomaterials inspire materials design, and why aeroplanes don't fall apart.

There are numerous experimental activities such as fuel-cell construction, measurement of materials properties at cryogenic temperatures, and the use of electron microscopes to image materials on a nanometre-length scale.

This subject contains invaluable background knowledge to underpin the study of Materials Science, Physics or Chemistry in subsequent years.


7. Physics

Essential A Level Mathematics, and either Physics or Further Mathematics (with three units of Mechanics)
Useful AS/A Level Further Mathematics
The Part IA Mathematics paper (9, below) must be taken in parallel with this option.

Physics encompasses theoretical problems, such as the nature of space and time when travelling close to the speed of light; and everyday technical problems, such as the damping of oscillating systems.

The ideas of mechanics and electricity are built on, and shown in action; for instance in studying rotating systems and the theories of oscillating systems, resonance, waves and optics. It gives a foretaste of major physics themes which are developed in succeeding years – the concept of a field, special relativity and quantum mechanics.

You think out problems for yourself and learn to apply mathematical analysis. Practical classes show the physics in action, and develop professional attitudes in performing, assessing and reporting experiments.


8. Physiology of Organisms

Useful AS/A Level Biology and/or Physics

In this option, you explore the different functional solutions developed by animals, plants and microbes to the problems of survival.

You begin with the factors that contribute to the stability of the cell's internal environment. Key topics in animal physiology are introduced; including function of nerves, muscles, cardiovascular, respiratory and osmoregulatory systems; followed by a wider consideration of homeostatic mechanisms.

You then explore the contrasting strategies whereby plants and microbes acquire nutrients, develop, adapt to their environment and associate with each other. Finally, these themes are drawn together in more comparative perspectives.

Physiology of Organisms is a valuable introduction to a wide range of Part IB biological courses and is of general interest to anyone curious about how the machinery underlying animal, plant and microbial life actually works!


9. Mathematics

Essential A Level Mathematics

This option focuses on mathematical techniques used in the physical sciences. Subjects covered include vector calculus, vector algebra, matrices, complex numbers, ordinary and partial differential equations, elementary probability theory, and computing techniques.

There are two routes, 'A' and 'B'. Route A provides a thorough grounding in methods of mathematical science and covers the mathematical content required for all Part IB physical science options, including specifically Mathematics and Physics.

Route B proceeds at a significantly faster pace and contains additional material for those students who find mathematics rewarding in its own right.

Students are strongly encouraged to take route A unless they have a thorough understanding of A Level Further Mathematics material. Both routes lead to the same examination.


10. Mathematical Biology

Essential A Level Mathematics

This option is focused on showing how mathematical techniques can help biologists. Mathematical techniques include simple differential equations, coupled non-linear systems, matrix algebra, recurrence relations, partial derivatives and compartmental analysis. Probability and statistics also form part of Mathematical Biology, although no prior knowledge of either is necessary.

You're introduced to the application of mathematical modelling in the analysis of biological systems, using examples drawn from biochemistry, animal and plant physiology, ecology and genetics.

Weekly computing practicals teach computational methods and numerical techniques, and there's extensive use of interactive computer modelling linked to lecture topics.


11. Elementary Mathematics for Biologists

Essential GCSE Mathematics

This option is for students without A Level Mathematics and is problem-based, covering applications of basic mathematical and statistical techniques in the context of biology.

In addition to standard techniques, you're introduced to the principles of modelling biological systems and experimental design.