About the Module:
“Behavioral Observations” covers general concepts in animal behavior, and more specifically trade-offs. Here, students work in pairs to conduct 5-minute focal animal observations of local sciurid species. By watching squirrels, students can investigate what factors influence the amount of time squirrels spend actively foraging for food vs. watching for predators (vigilance). Students collect and record additional information about their specific study site and can then consider how factors like habitat characteristics (e.g., biome, dominant vegetation, proximity to humans), species characteristics (e.g., sociality, group size) or presence of other animals (e.g., dogs, predators, humans, or conspecifics) might influence the squirrels’ behavior. Students are also acquiring general biology skills in the scientific method with this activity. There are many ways to “do science,” and this activity walks students through the processes of data collection, data analysis, testing of hypotheses, and summarizing results. Importantly, this activity highlights the value of observational data, compared to more traditional classroom-based research activities that focus on experimental methodologies.
Student-centered teaching is at the core of this inquiry-based activity. The goal of “Behavioral Observations” is to provide students with authentic research experiences, meaning that the outcome of the activity is unknown to the students and instructors alike. Students are provided a standardized protocol and methodology, but the rest of the activity can be 100% student-driven. Students can ask their own questions and test their own hypotheses with the nation-wide dataset. A strength of this activity is that it can be scaled appropriately for different courses. For example, this activity can be tailored to non-majors courses, where students are provided hypotheses to test and can practice graph-making skills, or the activity can challenge students in upper division courses, where students come up with their own hypotheses, analyze the nation-wide dataset and then write a final report or presentation on their findings. Squirrel-Net has successfully employed the “Behavioral Observations” activity in upper-division biology major courses (e.g., Mammalogy, Ecology, Wildlife Habitat Management and Vertebrate Natural History), introductory biology courses for majors, and non-major courses.