Insides out

Some of the most challenging things to teach in biology are those that we can’t easily see. Maybe they are microscopic, at the cellular or molecular level. Or, they exist in an inaccessible place, such as inside an animal’s body. Finding ways to bring such concepts to life, to create projects that animate and demonstrate their relevance is a vital part of teaching.

Back in my grandmother’s time, students of natural history kept meticulous notebooks detailing their observations and reflections.

In her “National Biology Note-book” completed by my grandmother in high school, a preface explains the importance of developing inductive reasoning skills through structured laboratory exercises rather than using the “verification method” of simply memorizing facts. While facts are quickly forgotten, asserts the author, “training the young mind to see accurately and think clearly” should result in deeply-ingrained scientific habits of observation and logical reasoning.

To find amoeba or paramecia, the note-book suggests, scoop some old leaves from a stagnant pool, boil up a hay infusion, and see what shows up. The same strategies work 100 years later. And, if DNA had been known in those years, I bet they would have used the same “pea soup” extraction that we do today.

.dan extraction

Working at the elementary level, I am always searching for fun projects that can help teach anatomy. Last year, students made life-size skeletons from recycled materials while learning the name for each of the bones. Related learning opportunities often arise serendipitously. We recently decided that it was time to disinter the squirrel that we had buried in the pine woods last fall, and carefully collected the bones. We are now in the process of reconstructing the squirrel’s skeleton, naming the bones as we go.  It’s a treasure hunt for puzzle pieces.

This year in the younger classes we are focusing more on the “squishy bits,” the internal organs. We are taking a comparative approach to this project, so that we can understand how the same or similar organs look and function in different organisms. To do this, we are creating “Operation” games; each student selects an animal, researches and draws its internal anatomy, and then cuts the organs out carefully from a recycled pizza box.

Because we have also worked on creating simple electric circuits, we are wiring the animal anatomy boxes so that, as in the classic Operation game, each organ must be removed very carefully so as not to set off an alarm buzzer.giraffe operation

When my grandmother graduated from high school in 1909, she wrote an essay entitled “Learning by Doing,” in which she described a progressive philosophy that would soon inform her own practice as a teacher.  I’m not sure what she would think of all the new-fangled technologies that I am using with my classes, but I hope that she would see them fulfilling the final words of her essay: a child “who formerly could see nothing in anything now sees something in everything…”

 

 

 

Ducks

The old “MR DUCKS – MR NOT” joke has just taken on new meaning for me. Over the winter break, I kept an eye on rare bird alerts, hoping that one would pop up in my neck of the woods. I went to a nature center looking for a red-headed woodpecker, to a local pond in search of a snow goose, and a new location – a recently redeveloped lake-filled quarry – hoping to see an out-of-season orange-crowned warbler. None of the hoped-for rarities appeared.

incoming geeseBut at the last site, I was watching the flocks of Canada geese taking off and landing when I noticed smaller waterfowl scattered among them. Whether these were rare, I had no clue. All I really knew for sure was – as they say – MR DUCKS.

While I have learned over the years to identify many birds, there are gaping holes in my waterfowl knowledge. Never having lived nor spent significant time near freshwater or marine habitats, I had less impetus to learn to identify their residents than the ones in my own backyard.  Other than the mallards that I raised and released on our small farm pond as a kid, and the ubiquitous Canada geese, I really don’t know waterfowl.geese mallards

But now, staring out at all these unfamiliar birds in a place almost in my backyard, I felt a challenge rising.  2018: Year of the duck.

For me, close and persistent observation – preferably accompanied by photography, so that I can study images in depth – is the key to really learning species. On my first excursion to the quarry, distinguishing different species was mostly a matter of playing the “One of these things is not like the others” game. In a flock of hundreds, could I discern through binoculars who was different from anyone else?geese 1

Some were divers, some dabblers. Markings were clearly different, but were these due to sex? Age? I photographed lots of birds, hoping the images would help reveal identities.

Back at home, a field guide helped me sort out the various species: bufflehead, hooded merganser, ruddy, ring-necked and redhead ducks.  The next day, I went back. This time, armed with clear search images, I was able to quickly spot and identify all of the same species. The mergansers, tufted hoods prominent, swam and dove in male-female pairs, while the buffleheads dove, popped up, and joined small groupings of other ducks. The ruddy duck bobbed about among the geese like a tiny bathtub toy, head tucked under its wing.ruddy

The birds observed me from a safe distance, moving away whenever I tried to get a closer vantage point, diving and never reappearing where I expected them to be.bufflehead 2 dive

Maybe as they grow accustomed to seeing me, I will become less of a threat. While some birders aim to spot as many species as they can in a year, I am hoping simply to move my knowledge beyond MR DUCKS – MR NOT. The challenge is on.merganser pair