The hamsters are amazed

My Year 7s return from a week long residential in deepest Somerset to start the final topic in their completely re-written Year 7 KS3 Scheme of Work. I’m quite excited about this, but also slightly nervous. As always with a new idea, there’s the lurking anxiety, will it work?

It’s Biology’s turn and I’ve decided to chuck out the flowering plants. They get to do this in Year 9 as part of their iGCSE and, frankly, you can have too much of a good thing. Plus, while there are fun things to do with pollen grains/tubes and dead nettle dissection and trying to address the whole bizarre concept that flowers are SEX ORGANS and that, yes, plants HAVE SEX, and hay fever is caused by… but let’s not go there…. it’s not really a topic that lends itself to investigative experimental question asking. It’s much more from the “here-are-lots-of-strange-words-and-weird-structures-and-you-need-to-learn-them-for-the-exam” school of information delivery, a throw-back to the days when all science really was just Physics or stamp collecting. Biology has moved on from just describing stuff; so should we.

So I’ve turned to an area very close to my heart, one I did my PhD in, and one that has been brutally stripped from the new A-levels – Animal Behaviour. After all, it they’re not going to study it anywhere else, they can do it in Year 7. Plus, cunning laugh, it allows me to put my baboon behaviour resource firmly into the Year 7 curriculum. More on that in a future burble. Today was just the introduction, and it’s back to the hamsters.

Quick review with accompanying pictures:Introduction to hamsters with notes

What’s this?       A hamster!

Where does it live? In the desert! The Syrian desert!

What’s it like in the desert, the Syrian desert? Hot, cold, dry, exposed, sparse food.

How on earth does a hamster survive in such an extreme place?

They’re very good at this. Lots of good ideas on camouflage and burrowing and cheek pouches and being nocturnal, having good sense of smell and so on. Excellent. They are children of Attenborough. Let’s focus on the behavioural adaptations.

I get them to sit in a closed circle, on their knees, no gaps. I then plonk the docile furry bean bag that is Herbie the hamster into the circle. I tell them to watch what he does. How is this behaviour helpful for surviving in the desert?

It works really well. They love seeing Herbie, they all get a chance to stroke him as he goes round, and they’re perceptive. Herbie is exploring, Herbie is sniffling, Herbie likes tunnelling into gaps. This all makes sense. What else? It’s so obvious that it takes them a while to see it, but eventually they do – Herbie sticks to the edges – he never ventures out into the middle. Again, they instantly see why this makes sense for a small, edible organism foraging in an exposed environment.

So that’s the introduction. We’re going to be investigating animal behaviour and why animals do what they do – how does it help them survive?

I then introduce the idea of mazes. Can they think why it’s easier to investigate behaviour in a laboratory setting? Brief discussion on this, as I want them to get started on their project. Right, here are the kind of questions you can ask with mazes.

In groups of 4, I tell them to decide on a question – one of the ones I’ve suggested, or one of their own, and then build a maze to test it. They are VERY happy with this! Year 7s, cardboard, scissors, sellotape, the chance to make something and then put a hamster into it…. I haven’t seen them this happy since they made apple juice in the autumn term.  They’re off and running.

Of course, being Year 7s, the excitement of maze building might distract them from the scientific question I want them to ask. Sure enough, a couple of the groups haven’t quite thought it through. There’s some nice ideas about hamsters and smell, and hamsters in the dark vs hamsters in the light, but they’ve not narrowed it down to a simple, testable hypothesis. It’s the price you pay for being open ended. I like the excitement and motivation that ownership of the project gives the girls, and they can generate some superbly original ideas, but they will need quite a lot of support along the way. It’s important to keep circulating, to keep talking, to keep asking them questions.

We talk about some of the options. How could they improve this? What are they going to measure? They start to become more focussed. The other groups are fine – they really seem to have grasped the idea of simple, controlled experiments. How on earth is this possible???? They haven’t written anything down all year!!!! So, do hamsters get quicker at finding their way through a maze – this group is building a magnificently complicated maze, know exactly what they’re doing and have taken on board ideas of repeats and controls. Wonderful. Another group is testing food preferences and is building an appropriately simple T-maze. A third is seeing if turns are made at random, or whether there’s a pattern – does turning left make the hamster more likely to turn right next time. Excellent.

Best of all, and one of my Key Performance Indicators (aarrrghhhh) of a successful lesson, they all look surprised and rather disappointed when I tell them it’s time to clear up. Is that really the end of the lesson? How has it gone so quickly?

The actual experiments take place on Friday….

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