What does it mean to be a scientist and to “do science”? Over the last months, our Long-View learners have worked to better understand that, as scientists, we are always asking -- and trying to answer --questions about the natural world.

There are four ways that scientists go about this:

  • By researching what other scientists have learned about a topic, using sources such as books, the internet, and published papers. 
  • By collecting their own observational data about the natural world. 
  • By designing and executing their own experiments.
  • By analyzing the data that pertains to their questions collected by other scientists.

Through a series of connected investigations, we explored each of these ways of “doing science.”

A “citizen science project” called Project Feederwatch out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided the initial stimulus. Project Feederwatch gives ordinary people the opportunity to participate in observational studies and to practice collecting data, which is then analyzed by real scientists as part of a greater research project.

Our young scientists at Long-View all agreed that to be good citizen scientists, it was our responsibility to prepare ourselves as best we could to be effective participants in this study. Thus, armed with field guides and great online resources, we learned as much as we could about the birds living in our area, including their biology, as well as the best techniques for identifying them in the field. This then led to a more in-depth look at the adaptations of different birds, such as beak shape, feather type, and wing length. Every bird has evolved in a slightly different way in order to ensure survival in its environment and studying the adaptations of birds can help us better understand the unique ecological niche that particular birds occupy.

In addition to learning more about birds, we honed our observational skills and practiced field data collection in the Long-View lawn and at Pease Park. Alongside a close look at the field journals and research projects of actual scientists (historical journals and those of current researchers), this helped paint a fuller picture for our young scientists of what it is like to collect field data. Additionally, the kids were very interested to hear about the field work of a young scientist, Taza Schaming, who collects field data on Clark’s nutcrackers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Some thought her job sounded amazing, while others were in shock at the hours she spends each day just waiting for birds to show up at her data collection sites! This was a good lesson for us, as we experienced our own challenges waiting for birds to visit the feeders we set up outside of Long-View. 

Next we explored the projects within BirdSleuth Investigator, a student magazine published annually by Cornell Labs. It is so valuable for students to see and read about the work of other scientists, but most of the time the reading level of professional papers is above that of most elementary students.  BirdSleuth Investigator, however, features student research projects about birds, including experiments, observational studies, and data analysis studies. All of the featured projects use open-access “ebird citizen science data.” As we read some of the BirdSleuth Investigator papers, we practiced identifying variables, interpreting data tables and graphs, and evaluating overall experimental design. Some learners were even inspired to design bird-themed research projects of their own. (The submission deadline for the next BirdSleuth Investigator will be in late spring – anyone itching to be published is encouraged to pursue this opportunity further!)

No study of birds could be complete without a close look at one of their most fascinating adaptations – the capacity for flight. In addition to asking the question “How can birds fly?,” we decided to explore “And how is this similar to how airplanes fly?”

This was the perfect opportunity to do some building, and to set the stage for an engineering project.  We decided to test out the flying capabilities of two different models of paper airplanes and then compiled our qualitative and quantitative data to see if we had enough evidence to make any claims about the relationship between flight pattern and airplane wing aspect ratio -– the ratio between a wing’s length and its width. 

When the kids looked at their data, many felt comfortable making a claim that one or the other of the airplanes was better at flying farther. However, when we looked at our class data, we saw that there was not a lot of consistency to these results, making this claim weak at best.  At the same time, when we looked instead at our qualitative data, our learners decided we had strong evidence that airplanes with shorter wings fly in a “more twisty pattern” than those with longer wings.  We were then able to analyze this observation as it relates to birds by viewing recordings of birds in flight in order to see if the same conclusion holds for birds. (Hint – it does! Birds with short wings are much more maneuverable than those with long wings).

An engineering project will be the last phase of this rich unit; we strive to be sure that our kids at Long-View engage in scientific inquiries involving the formulation of a question that can be answered through an investigation, as well as the formulation of problems that can be solved through design. After the winter break, Long-View kids will be challenged to apply what they learned about wing shape, aspect ratio, and wing load to build the most effective gliding airplane they can, using foam and other simple materials.

Here's to hoping that everyone's New Year's Resolution is the same as ours: More Science!