A Virtual Animal Behavior Research Project for an Introductory Biology Course
In December 2019, I was preparing to teach the lab section for the second half of an introductory biology sequence, which includes evolution, form and function, and ecology. I’d taught this course many times in the past, though I hadn’t for a few years before 2019. I knew I wanted to move away from rote learning through memorization or canned laboratory activities, and to create an authentic experience that would allow me the overarching theme of developing students’ scientific skills, as well as their science identity. Therefore, I redesigned the course so that our scheduled lab time was used for knowledge and skill development. The course focused on the research skills in the Vision and Change Biology Core Concepts (AAAS 2011) and supporting literature outlining how to apply the core concepts (Branchaw et al. 2020) so that students developed the necessary skills to conduct the research project at the end of the course.
Unfortunately, my initial plans were sidelined by the ongoing global pandemic, which required a portion of our laboratory activities to be conducted virtually. I ended up developing a multiweek virtual model to develop basic scientific knowledge and skills using BioInteractive resources that culminated in an eight-week-long animal behavior research project.
In developing this course, I focused on skill development because it’s essential for building confidence. When students are more confident in their skills, this confidence generates a sense of belonging in science, contributing to their science identity. This is essential for retention of students identified historically as Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race (PEERs), who may be marginalized and less comfortable in the science environment (Asai 2020).
Ethogram and Time-Budget Study
In order to move students toward more open-ended experiments, I chose ethograms with a time-budget study as their final research project. Ethograms are used in the field of animal behavior to collect data during observations and require making a series of field observations that result in a catalog of behaviors and activities identified by the observer.
For this research project, students conducted independent ethological research observing the behavior of an animal species of their choice. I asked students to choose between focusing on a group of animals or an individual, since these require different observational techniques. In observing a group of animals via webcam, students needed to understand that they should focus on one individual of the group for set intervals. Students could also choose to focus on an individual animal for longer and more frequent observations, though that comes with its own limitations.
Initial observations of specific behaviors helped students construct their data-collection instruments, which are used to construct a basic ethogram. Students determined how they would collect data, which helped to develop observational skills and rudimentary experimental design. I provided students with some examples of ethogram templates. (Many zoos have a basic version posted for students, such as this one: Virtual Classroom | Animal Ethograms - Denver Zoo.)
Finally, students used the list of behaviors they collected for their ethogram to observe their animal(s) several more times. They were required to create a data-collection tool to record the number of times each behavior was observed during a specified period of time for at least three more observation periods. These data were used to create a time-budget study, which is a study that identifies the activities an animal is performing in order to determine how the animal uses its energy during a specific time period.
Overall, ethograms and time-budget studies ease students into research before they are introduced to experimental variables and more advanced research methodology. Plus, it’s fun because they choose their own study animal, so it allows for an authentic final assessment in which students demonstrate the skills they have learned and take ownership of their project.
For context, this course consisted of a three-credit lecture and a one-credit lab. The first six weeks of the 15-week laboratory portion were conducted in a synchronous virtual format, using BioInteractive materials to teach the basic skills necessary to start the ethogram project. (The first six weeks, as well as the culminating project description, are presented here.) Starting in Week 7, we also conducted in-person lab activities that enhanced students’ background knowledge on animal behavior and taxonomy. All work for the ethogram project was submitted through the course learning management system.
Week 1: Science Literacy Part 1 & Evaluating Science in the News
The first week of lab class introduced students to the process of science by having them evaluate scientific news articles to prepare them for the literature review of their animal behavior project. During our synchronous meeting time, I provided a minilecture on scientific literacy, pseudoscience, and understanding logical fallacies, followed by a short quiz using an online polling system. I then assigned students into breakout groups. Each team completed the short handout for the activity “Evaluating Science in the News,” which involves using the CRAP (Currency, Reliability, Authority, and Purpose) test to evaluate a science news source.
Each team evaluated a “science” article about SARS-CoV-2 that was filled with misinformation by filling out the handout. I assigned the extended version of the “Scientist Role Models” activity as homework because I wanted them to begin creating their science identity so that they considered themselves as scientists.
Week 2: Scientific Literacy Part 2: Reading Scientific Articles
During Week 2, we continued exploring scientific literacy to scaffold skills they learned in Week 1. The synchronous virtual meeting began with a case study activity that provided students with information about experimental design and basic data analysis. This case study also showed an animal observation study in which there is no laboratory experiment, but data were still collected based on a hypothesis.
We discussed the case study as a class, with students responding in the chat or out loud. Once we completed the case study, I created teams for another article analysis activity. We used this activity to become familiar with the structure of a scientific paper and describe what kind of information is provided in each section (abstract, introduction, methods, results, and conclusion). The activity goals were:
- Identify hypotheses in scientific writing.
- Evaluate evidence in support of a claim in scientific and journalistic writing.
- Identify appropriate search terms.
- Effectively search library databases to find relevant peer-reviewed scientific literature.
- Gain experience reviewing peer-reviewed literature.
Here are guiding questions that I asked students to keep in mind when reading a scientific article. (I also provided an optional resource article: “How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper.”)
- What basic research question are the authors trying to answer?
- What makes that research question significant? (That is, why try to answer that question? Why does it matter?)
- What data did the authors collect?
- What is the authors’ interpretation of their data?
- Do you think that the data they collected supports their conclusions? Why or why not?
This activity consisted of two parts:
Part 1: I reviewed how scientists formulate a hypothesis, test it, and share their information with their peers through publication. I briefly introduced a topic using a short video. While students watched the video, I asked them to focus on how an observation, no matter how trivial, could help form a testable scientific question and emphasized that observation is the beginning of all scientific investigations.
I used a video about penguin defecation to maintain the theme of research related to animal observation. It gave students a chuckle, but is related to actual research, which they review in Part 2 of the activity.
Part 2: Students were divided into groups to read an article about penguin defecation (Meyer-Rochow and Gal 2003) related to the research depicted in the video. Students were asked to work as a team to identify various components of the article, including the scientist’s hypothesis, the evidence used to accept or reject the hypothesis, and whether the hypothesis was accepted or rejected. For the activity, students chose one person from their group to be the notetaker and one person to report back to the entire class when we reconvened.
When the groups finished, we reconvened and students shared out. I recommend doing this as a group activity after they watch the video, with a follow-up discussion, because both of my sections found this particularly difficult. The article was a bit complex for them to understand, but as we talked through it, they understood the importance of becoming familiar with primary literature. I also reminded students that they were not expected to fully understand the paper.
Homework for Week 2 consisted of a similar reading assignment that related to the work they would do in Week 4 (Lizard Evolution Lab). Students watched a BioInteractive video on reproductive isolation and speciation in lizards, then read “Rapid evolution of a native species following invasion by a congener” (Stuart et al. 2014).
In the directions for the article analysis, I reminded students that they were working toward a course goal of being able to understand scientific journal articles. I also allayed students’ concerns about the complexity of the article by reassuring them that I would do my best to teach them the background information needed to understand each article before we read it. I also told them to focus their attention on what they wanted to glean from the article.
Week 3: Sampling Distribution Lab
During Week 3, students were introduced to graph analysis and the concept of sample distributions using the Sampling and Normal Distribution Click & Learn and its accompanying worksheet. I converted the worksheet to a Google Form that students could easily fill out and submit online, since they would be working asynchronously. During the synchronous meeting, we did a quick recap of the article that students read for their homework from Week 2. I also showed the annotated summary of the same article entitled “There's a new kid in town” posted on Science in the Classroom.
After the article discussion, I did a minilecture on sampling distribution and how to use the Click & Learn. I then allowed students to work individually or in teams during class time. I stayed online in the virtual classroom so that students could pop in if they had questions for me. This activity proved to be difficult for some students, so I set up individual virtual meetings to go over their questions. No homework was assigned this week as they were working on the activity asynchronously.
Week 4: Lizard Evolution Lab
Week 4 included one of the favorite activities for both of my groups. Like in Week 3, I spent the synchronous meeting time showing students how to use the Lizard Evolution Virtual Lab and its accompanying worksheet. I also showed the related video The Origin of Species: Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, which helped students understand how the data for the virtual lab were collected. I reminded them that observational skills were key to this research and that this was the research from the article they read in Week 2.
As in Week 3, I converted the worksheet questions into a Google Form. Similarly, no homework was assigned as they worked on this virtual lab asynchronously.
Week 5: Animal Behavior & Communication Part 1
Students were now ready to apply their skills. For Week 5, I used the synchronous time to go over the following topics with students via videos, a minilecture, and exemplars of previous work:
- How to keep a field journal (discussion and examples posted)
- Overview on ethograms and how they are created (videos and examples posted)
- Various types of animal behaviors that can be observed and methods of sampling animal behavior (videos)
I found several good video examples on YouTube and various examples of ethograms, which I also posted in the learning management system.
For homework, students reviewed the materials, then conducted an initial observation of an animal species of their choice. I’ve written about a similar project here: “Teaching Ecology and Animal Behavior in an Online Setting.” These observations helped them decide on the animal species they would like to study.
I also asked them to find at least two peer-reviewed articles about their animal species. I will admit that I was surprised that, at this point, students struggled with understanding what this meant. Many started off with non-peer-reviewed resources, such as encyclopedias and popular websites. I provided feedback on their resources and did not award the points for the assignment until they submitted peer-reviewed articles. In some cases, this took a virtual meeting to discuss this with students.
Week 6: Animal Behavior & Communication Part 2
For Week 6, students were introduced to a more in-depth example of animal observations so they could apply their problem-solving skills, as well as the knowledge we had learned in class thus far. This example really created a deeper understanding of the process of science once students saw how it was done.
For the synchronous class time, we used the How Animals Use Sound to Communicate Click & Learn. Students were provided with a Google Doc version of the accompanying worksheet so they could fill it in as we worked through the Click & Learn. With the class, I clicked through and discussed the “Introduction” slides to provide students with the knowledge base for the activity.
On Slides 3 and 4, students watched a video of the various animal behaviors identified and defined by the researchers. On Slide 3, I played the video and asked students to try to identify which of the auditory signals they observed the animals using. After this, we moved to Slide 4, which has the same video but highlights the auditory signals that students should have observed. This really showed that observational work, especially when there are multiple animals, is difficult.
This example connected with what students should have done during their observations the previous week. The example also assisted them in that week’s homework, which was constructing their data-collection tool. In addition, we discussed how animals use sound to communicate as we continued to watch the videos. This was much more interesting than reading about animal behavior in their textbook!
At this point, students should also have been thinking about the types of behaviors they could have been observing in Week 5. Some opted to redo their initial observation because they realized they did not adequately observe their animal. I loved that this happened because it let them experience the actual process of science in action. In other words, they realized that their original observational skills were not honed and were better able to understand the types of behaviors they should be looking for in their chosen species.
Once we finished the introduction of the Click & Learn, as a class, we worked through the first case study about how elephants communicate across long distances. This case study begins with an introduction to various types of elephant sounds and describes the combination of low- and high-frequency vocalizations used in elephant communication. This is a great thinking exercise that shows students how observational research can be used to develop a quantitative research study.
As homework for this week, students were asked to revise/develop descriptions of the behaviors they had identified. Then, they developed a definition for each behavior and created their data-collection sheet for the time-budget study.
The time-budget study was created by each student based on the list of behaviors they had generated. Once they identified the timeframe (e.g., observing animals for two 15-minute intervals twice per week at a specific time of day) for their observations, they would count how many times the animal presented with each behavior within the time they observed the animal. This is where they would use the ethogram to create a checklist used during the time-budget study observations. They were provided with a detailed instruction sheet for the entire project.
Once students submitted their data-collection table and received feedback from me (either written or via a meeting), they could start collecting data. They were required to collect data on three separate dates.
After Week 6
After working through Weeks 5 and 6, which helped students design their projects, students collected data for the rest of the semester (Weeks 7–14), with at least three separate data-collection periods required for their time-budget study. The final assessment for the course included an oral presentation of their results, as well as a written paper. I created a slide template for them and a sample of a research paper (I used a former student’s paper with permission), as many were not familiar with how to present authentic research.
After Week 6, the students met for in-person lab exercises (we were masked and in full PPE) where we practiced skills they would need to successfully complete their project. For example, they practiced behavioral observation skills via a pill-bug experiment where they made their own hypotheses and tested them.
During these final weeks, I also scheduled time to meet with students in-person to discuss issues with their projects. I tried to highlight the importance of interacting with a mentor (in this case, me) and helped them practice the skills they would use in graduate school or at work.
All but one student out of 30 successfully completed the project. The final presentations were conducted virtually. Students proudly presented their authentic research and clearly showed how they had developed their research skills with this project. I was ecstatic that students were able to accomplish so much during a global pandemic. They were able to get a feel for what it is like to work with a research mentor and develop their own research projects. I really enjoy mentoring students, and this is a perfect way to interact with them and model for them what it is to be mentored and to engage them in the process of science. Through the creation of the student-mentor bond, I was able to help them begin to see themselves as scientists. The seed for the base of their science identity was planted.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011.
Asai, D. J. “Race Matters.” Cell 181, 4 (2020): 754–757. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.03.044.
Branchaw, J. L., P. A. Pape-Lindstrom, K. D. Tanner, S. A. Bissonnette, T. L. Cary, B. A. Couch, A. J. Crowe, et al. “Resources for Teaching and Assessing the Vision and Change Biology Core Concepts. CBE—Life Sciences Education 19, 2 (2020): es1. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-11-0243.
Meyer-Rochow, V. B., and J. Gal. “Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation.” Polar Biology 27, 1 (2003): 56–58. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-003-0563-3.
Stuart, Y. E., T. S. Campbell, P. A. Hohenlohe, R. G. Reynolds, L. J. Revell, and J. B. Losos. “Rapid evolution of a native species following invasion by a congener.” Science 346, 6208 (2014): 463–466. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1257008.
Melissa Haswell is currently the Associate Dean of Science and Mathematics at Delta College in Michigan. Previously, she taught introductory biology and science ethics for a biology majors program, and anatomy and physiology, and pathophysiology for the nursing program at Davenport University, a private university in Michigan. When she’s not focused on working to improve higher education, she enjoys hiking and camping with her husband and Dalmatian, Chloe, as well as reading, cooking, and spending time with their two cats.
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