Tag Archives: behaviour

Who’s your daddy?

I’m making this the last Burble of this Academic Year. It’s partly a feeling that inspiration is close to running on empty and partly sheer exhaustion. I need a break – as I’m sure you all do too.

I was going to just post some of my favourite pictures of recent work….

…like this spectacular mitosis slide found by a Year 12 student preparing a garlic root tip squash with Orcein stain… (and captured with the Celestron digital microscope imager)


… or this fabulous gel, just one from our best ever results with protein electrophoresis. I’m adding to our formidable supply of gel tanks, acquiring enough vertical versions so that we can run more appropriate protein gels with polyacrylamide, but the one on view here is a bog-standard horizontal agarose.


OK, I wasn’t too impressed with the forensic inquiry of the students – 4 lanes of chicken breast vs 4 lanes of chicken nugget – couldn’t they have included some other parts of the chicken for comparison?!?! – but look at the bands! Photographing with an i-phone or an i-pad also allows for instant fiddling with the picture,  making it black and white and adjusting the contrast to make the bands clearer.

But today was Year 7 Baboon Day, my favourite day of the year.

The full details of this lesson with all the relevant resources can be found here:

Who’s Your Daddy?

So having already role played cuckoos and host birds and rats in Skinner boxes, they now get to role play baboons, whilst half a dozen students try to figure out what’s going on, collect molecular data by “darting” the baboons to get “blood samples” and so on.

All good fun and, as usual, they made splendidly realistic baboons. But the best features of a lesson can sometimes be the unexpected ones. The students cast as scientists had done a great job as field biologists, but were having particular difficulty determining the paternity of the baby baboons. The mothers and babies were fine – the DNA profiles were consistent with their field observations. But who had fathered the offspring?

I couldn’t understand the difficulty. Once you realise that all the bands from a baby must either match bands in the mother or father, so you have to account for all bands present, it’s just a simple logic problem. Isn’t it? But, no, they were baffled. What was the problem? Where was the mental block?

And then one of them had a flash of insight.  Hang on, she said, are baboons different to humans? Can one father have several “wives”?

It was a brilliant moment, a lightbulb moment, one you want to capture and bottle and share with the world. They had been trying to match up mothers and fathers and offspring as discreet, family units. This hadn’t worked and they were getting frustrated and confused. Suddenly, with this new way of looking at the world,  they could make sense of it all. They rapidly worked out that the alpha male was not only the father of 4 of the 6 offspring, but had (shock horror!) sired them with 4 different females.

This is quite sweet – such innocence! such well brought-up students! – but I love anything that startles students out of pre-conceived views of the universe. They had framed baboon society as being essentially the same as conventional, middle class, western human society, and subconsciously made certain assumptions. Which didn’t match the evidence. So something had to give.

Before they left for home, I asked them what they had learned in the lesson. The list was long – dominance hierarchies, stress hormones, grooming behaviour, DNA profiles and how to interpret them, baboon society, field biology, how to communicate without speaking….

And they hadn’t written a single thing down.

Have a great summer. I hope to be back in the autumn with more ideas to share.




Pressing none of the right buttons

So, last week I made reference to a Year 7 lesson on Animal Behaviour  that I thought people might like to try. Scanning back through previous posts, a kind of retro-burble, I notice that I had already mentioned this in passing as part of a Year 13 lesson. Given that the new A-level specification has completely removed any mention of Animal Behaviour as a Biological topic (why? what were they thinking?!!? absolute madness!!!!) I have simply moved all the wonderful practical activities down to KS3 so that our students get at least some exposure to this fascinating area of Biology.

Which brings us to Skinner Boxes. This follows rather neatly from the work they did with Hettie and Herbie (our hamsters) in their splendid cardboard mazes. After a brief review of the pros and cons of studying behaviour in a laboratory setting, I explain that today they will be working with a brand new animal. Can they guess what it is?

I leave most of the girls in the lab, under the supervisory gaze of our technician, and take two of them (pre-selected) into a neighbouring lab. Here I show them the “Skinner Box”, simply some tables rearranged to enclose a small, square area, with a button-operated bulb on each side (your Physics technician can run up a pair of these in 5 minutes or less). I explain to the two girls that they will be operating the Skinner box. This involves following the instructions on a series of experiments (Skinner box operator instructions 2 Skinner box operator instructions 1 where “rats” (i.e. Year 7 girls) are put, one at a time, into the box and allowed to explore their surroundings. The operators sit outside the box, opposite each other, with a box of Maltesers (to provide suitable rewards), and a long ruler (to provide “punishment”) each.

They quickly grasp what they’re meant to do. I tell them to keep the Maltesers out of sight, under the desk, and to not let anyone else read the instructions. For the first series of experiments, every “rat” will be a sample in Experiment 1 – the “rats” simply have to do is press the button and light up the bulb – if they manage this, they get a Malteser….

I go back next door. Have they guessed the animal yet? Mice! Woodlice! Guinea pigs! Rabbits! No, it’s a much simpler animal. Very basic instincts. Very readily available in a school setting. At this precise moment you are never more than, oooh, 50cm from one…. Oh, is it us? Bingo!

I tell them that they will play the part of experimental rats. That I’m going to take them one by one into my other laboratory and observe their behaviour for 15 seconds. That’s all. They’ve seen how hamsters behave in a strange setting – just pretend you’re a hamster. And I will be filming it all on the department i-pad.

And we’re off. Olivia, the first “rat” in, provides a textbook example.  She snuffles around inquisitively and, with seeming inevitability, presses a button. Flora (one of the Skinner Box operatives) dutifully delivers a Malteser. Olivia giggles with surprise and delight and immediately presses the button again. Voila! Another Malteser is provided. I quickly stop her because I don’t want the Maltesers to run out – she’s got the idea, she’s learned the association.

Experimental rats get to watch the other rats being tested – it’s partly the logistical difficulties of having yet another holding area, but mainly because I want them to see and enjoy what’s going on.

At this point, something rather surprising happens. The next 5 girls do nothing – literally, nothing. They stand there, all self-conscious and slightly giggly, some not even looking around, but absolutely refusing to risk doing anything in case it’s wrong. “What am I supposed to do?” some of them mouth at the other girls, but they are under strict instructions not to give any clues, and after 15 seconds I put them out of their misery (i.e. I stop the experiment – I don’t put them down humanely!).

Sofia, rat number 7, behaves just like Olivia (hurrah!) and then, joy of joy, in steps Maria who just decides that she will spend her 15 seconds spinning like a whirling dervish, her long blonde pony tail whirling behind her. “I’m dizzy….” she gurgles delightedly as she staggers out of the test area. By now, of course, every girl in the room now realises that they should have done and while feeling rather foolish and frustrated, they’re also enjoying seeing others miss the point.

By the end, only 5 out of 20 girls were sufficiently curious and lacking in anxiety to win some Maltesers. The rest just didn’t want to risk doing anything in case it turned out to be wrong, whatever that might mean. Where does this fear come from? Our education system? Our nationality? Can we blame Michael Gove? Whatever the reason, it makes for a good life lesson. Take a chance! Just do it! What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might win a Malteser!

Of course, having now all seen the kind of thing that’s going on, they’re all suitably prepped for the second round of experiments. This time I let everyone watch, because all the experiments are different. And now they are wonderfully imaginative and creative in their quest to get the right behaviour pattern. I particularly like the girl who just stands in the middle of the box and says, very quietly and politely, “Please can I have a Malteser?” Some girls find they are being prodded by a ruler – which continues until they press the button. And so on.

It makes for terrific discussion. How is this different to the maggot behaviour? Which is better for learning, reward or punishment? Should you revise with chocolate or electric shocks? And where are the real life examples of this kind of learning? This last takes them a while, but they eventually come up with learning what stinging nettles look like (could be a good comparison to start the exercise – demo lots of different leaves – which ones do they know), and the warning colours of bees and wasps.

Learning about Learning by doing – the only type there is.

And that’s nearly yer lot for this year. I’ll post one more burble next Wednesday, and then it’s the summer holidays. I, for one, can’t wait.

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….

Eating raw onion and turning on bacteria

Some people have been asking about the new A-levels and what we’re going to do. My preference, and the general feeling of the Curriculum Committee, is to abandon AS, free up the Year 12 summer for teaching (and having a year free of public exams!), and revel in all that extra time for practical work. But in the first year, when not all subjects have accredited specifications, we’ll still do AS for all subjects. I’m inclined to stay with OCR – better the devil you know – even if they can’t give me a clear answer on how my A2 students, who did their first set of PSAs on the field trip at the start of term, will not be disadvantaged with respect to all the students who do their PSAs after the 1st December when the mark schemes are released. C’est le dejeuner de le chien, if you ask me.

Anyway, back to the classroom. I’ve realised that I really really really really really like teaching Behaviour. We’re on to Insight Learning and after starting the lesson with the classic banana suspended from the ceiling and asking a student if they can get it down (disappointingly, in a girls school, they always get a sensible chair to stand on – back at SPS, you could always rely on the boy to give up after a desultory and ineffective leap, thereby enabling you to point out that he was definitively less intelligent than a chimpanzee), I then got the students to try and work out a number of wooden puzzles – this kind of thing http://www.theotherbranch.co.uk/item.php?pro=SPUZD. I let them work in pairs and give them about 4 or 5 minutes on each one.

Discussion then focuses on how they set about solving them – mostly, it’s trial and error. But the Indian Rope Trick is almost impossible to solve with trial and error, you have to have the insight, the moment of lateral clarity that makes you realise how to do it. Most students don’t get it within the lesson (I’ll be honest – it took me 2 days!), but at least one always does – and you then get to describe and explain how you worked it out (and if don’t know how to do it, I’m not telling!). Can chimps/monkeys do the same? I then show them the Capuchin monkey BBC film (“Monkey Puzzle” – extraordinary film of extraordinary animals) and set a homework asking them to try and figure out what types of behaviour are on display.

Elsewhere, Year 9 have been comparing the cells of onions and bananas. Both plant cells, but utterly different (if you’ve not done banana, just smear a tiny amount on a slide and stain with iodine – they are jam-packed with starch grains, are blobby and irregular, and have really thin cell walls). The girls draw and annotate both, and then use their observations to explain the differences between onions and bananas. I usually eat a raw onion for comic (but also illustrative!) effect. Homework is to write a letter from an angry baby to its parents, explaining why they shouldn’t be weaning it on to raw onion and why can’t it have nice squishy banana insteady? This always generates splendidly indignant babies and really differentiates those who “get it” and those who don’t. The drawings usually tend to be magnificent too. Lovely lesson because, apart from eating the onion, I don’t do much.

And my other Year 13s have been turning on E.coli in the Lac Operon investigation. If you don’t do this, you really should (I can send protocol details if you’re interested). It’s brilliant! Two culture broths of bacteria, one cultured in lactose, one cultured in glucose – and measure how quickly they break down the indicator ONPG to a yellow compound (ONPG is broken down by lactase aka beta-galactosidase). Not surprisingly, the lactose culture, rapidly turns yellow. But what I still find amazing is that in the course of the lesson, the glucose culture, introduced to lactose only at the start of the lesson, does turn very faintly yellow within the hour – the repressor is off and the gene is being expressed! The students find it very challenging to explain the differences and, again, it’s a great differentiator. But mainly it’s just really cool.

That’s me done for this week. Happy teaching!


TECHNICAL NOTES for lac operon

Intro to Lac Operon

Lac Operon

Year 13 – behave!

Dear Everyone,

Happy New Academic Year! Not that new, come to think of it, given that we’re already 3 weeks in. I would have re-started these weekly burblings earlier, but I’ve been swamped with such joyous things as UCAS references, Departmental Review meetings and the Year 13 Field Trip (actually, this was pretty joyous, even if nothing but giant slugs turned up in the Live Mammal Traps ). It’s also meant I’ve not had time to plan lessons properly, which has resulted in some Year 7s and 9s being rather short-changed – ugh, the kind of lessons that keep you awake at night. Still, I’ve never taught Year 7s before, and they are very nice. And very small.

The practical highlight so far has been Behavioural stuff with the Year 13s. I do enjoy putting the students in my Skinner Box. You need to borrow a couple of power packs/switches/bulbs from Physics but otherwise it’s a doddle. Arrange some chairs/benches in a square, put a switch/bulb on opposite sides, allocate two students to the two switch/bulb set ups (with a set of instructions each – attached – and a tube of smarties each) and then put the other students in, one by one and see what they do. Highly entertaining.

And taxes/kineses with maggots always amazes me by how brilliantly it works. No background theory – just straight in. Choice Choobs (© Burnett 2005) are easy to make – just a cardboard tube with a hole in the middle for introducing the maggots, and a bung. Get them to design the experiment, collect the data, analyse with Chi2, research the behaviour etc. Why is this adaptive? And so on.

Kineses are even easier – A3 paper, food dye, A3 sized tray for putting over the top. Dip a maggot in the dye, pop it on the middle of the paper and let it go. Record distance travelled and number of turns for 30-60 seconds. It produces wonderful, Jackson Pollock-esque images, and it works. The maggots go twice as fast in the light, and turn much more in the dark. Again, design, collect, analyse, research. These are really nice ways of revising basic skills (what type of graph? Where are the error bars? How do you analyse? Standard deviation?) and brilliant at really nailing experimental design/controls (how do you know your maggots don’t just head north?).

It also throws up some good statistics stuff – If 8 maggots out of 10 head to the dark, it’s not actually a significant effect, even though it looks like a clear preference. So what do you need to do?

That’s it for this week!


Skinner box operator instructions 1

Skinner box operator instructions 2