The most important step in teaching science…

December 20, 2019

pellets alison

Picture this: a science classroom with rows of desks all facing the blackboard. Students receive a set of instructions. They dutifully complete steps 1, 2, and 3. They get the predetermined result. They read a paragraph explaining what happened. 

Have you ever done science in this way? I bet most of you have.

Now think of a professional scientist.

Who identifies the question they are trying to answer? Who tells them what experiments to run and what each step is? How can they know their results ahead of time? Who is going to explain what happened?

Traditionally science education has not reflected how actual science is done. But research is showing us that science education is most effective when it looks like actual science.

Recently, I presented at the conference for the North American Association for Environmental Educators in Lexington Kentucky on the work we have been doing at the Environmental Volunteers to revise our curriculum to support the teaching best practices being uncovered in the research. (And by the way, this also makes our curriculum fully support the Next Generation Science Standards.)

For the conference, I focused on our latest program to be updated, Biodiversity. It is a great example of transitioning from the traditional science structure to one that reflects the science process. 

The Owl Pellet Dissection Kit

Owl Pellet dissection is an activity that is frequently done in classrooms. In the traditional structure, students are told all about owls – how they fly silently, how they hunt, how they turn their head to see because they can’t move their eyes, how they eat their prey. Often there is some picture of an owl swallowing their food whole, digesting the meaty bits, then spitting up the pellet, which is the indigestible bones and fur.

Finally, after all of that, the students are given a pellet to dissect. They break it open and find all of the bones, and compare those bones to a chart. Often if a student misidentifies a bone, they are simply told the correct answer. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that is good about teaching about owls using owl pellets.

The hands-on dissection is always the star of the show – but why make students wait so long to get to the best part?

When students have to sit and listen for a long time, they get distracted, they zone out, they let the extrovert students do all of the talking. Why do all of that talking? Do students need to know about how an owl flies or turns its head? Sure, at some point it is great to learn. But is it needed now?

Owl Pellets researched as a Field Biologist.

Imagine a field biologist on a hike. They come across an interesting black clump. What is it? Who or what made it? How did it get there? How long was it there?

To answer that question, the scientist observes the size and shape. They eventually break it apart to see what is inside. They find bones and fur, but no muscle or organ tissue. Maybe on a previous hike they found something very similar but it was filled with bones and scales, or maybe a whole bunch of shell pieces like an exoskeleton.

Since neither clump contained the muscle or organ tissue, they guess that it is the remains of what something ate. But it was clumped up like a ball like a furball their cat at home makes. So, maybe this was made the same way.

Nearby each pellet they found feathers and bird nests, so maybe it was a bird that made it. The one they found today contains the bones of a small mammal so it must be from a bird that eats mammals. Eventually, the scientist combines the clues of the pellet, the feather, and even a noise they heard nearby to determine that it was made by a Barn Owl.

Modeling the work of a Field Biologist in the classroom

This is exactly how we have restructured our pellet activity – modeling the work of a field biologist.

Sure, we never got to the part about owls being able to turn their heads 270 degrees. But, for today at least, it wasn’t needed. Every student got to engage with the coolest part – the dissection – right away. Students are asked to use their critical thinking to deduce the identity of the animal that made it. They are not told the right answer. They are given clues and they discover the answer.

In the end, students are better prepared to use these same skills again in future learning, and they are more likely to remember some of the information about owls too.

It has been exciting watching one of our really good activities become a truly stellar one.