Carnivore studies teach lessons in real-life science at Issaquah Middle School

February 19, 2013

By Lillian O'Rorke

There are more than two dozen territorial carnivores that call the Issaquah area home, and for the past four months the sixth-grade life science students at Issaquah Middle School have been leading their own investigations into these wild neighbors.

Since the end of September, the students have been learning about the local critters, ranging from raccoons and skunks to coyotes and bears, and developing scientific studies to find out how the animals use resources in the Issaquah community to meet their needs. The children teamed with staff from the Woodland Park Zoo and Western Wildlife to put the scientific method to use — asking questions, doing background research, forming and testing hypotheses, analyzing data and reporting their conclusions.

“I think it was interesting, because there was a lot to talk about since we have a lot of carnivores living in the area,” Engu Fontama said.

The 11-year-old and others from her seventh-period life science class set up a study to find out whether more bears are seen on garbage day. The students set up cameras in their neighborhoods to record any garbage thieves. The students then analyzed the photos and presented their findings to a packed auditorium Feb. 5. Included in the presentation were several photos of black bears perusing for an easy meal.

“It was slightly scary, because it was a big crowd. But, it was fun,” Fontama said. “It was kind of cool because we learned some really cool stuff.”

She and her fellow students used their findings to recommend to the community that people only put their trash out in the morning before the garbage truck is set to arrive. Her favorite part, she said afterward, was catching the wild animals on film, including seeing a coyote and a cougar sit on the same log at different times.

“It was wonderful. These students, as you can see, were really engaged in the project,” said Kelley Frazee, an education programs specialist at Woodland Park Zoo. “It took them a long time to understand that these investigations that they were creating were actually something they were going to do, and every time I came back, they were more and more excited.”

Frazee explained that the program, which was a grant-funded pilot, not only helped the children learn about the scientific method, but also helped them connect to the wildlife in their community and learn that it is possible to peaceably co-exist.

“But, it’s more than that,” she said. “A lot of them reported on science identity. Many students that didn’t seem like they were going to be into it, interested from the beginning, turned out to be some of the students that were really, really, really invested.”

Braden Schultz said he was excited from the beginning, when his teacher first announced the project. His group decided to study how the quality of trash bins affects the number of carnivores seen.

“It was really all pretty much student-run,” said Michelle Garlatz, who teaches life and earth sciences at the school. “They really got to develop their question based on what their interests were and what they had seen at their house. Since it was student ownership, it made it more successful. They were more interested.”

She explained that she and her fellow teacher, Michaela Donahoe, played more of a facilitator role, helping the students weed through and understand all the information they gathered from surveys and the cameras.

The project kicked off with a trip to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where the students got the chance to observe the animals. That’s also where they first met Darrell Smith, from Western Wildlife Outreach, who taught them about carnivores and taxonomy. Smith also met several times with the individual groups and was available throughout the research process to answer questions the students had.

“It sounds like you guys learned not to be fearful, but respectful. Not to worry about going out into the woods and learning new things,” he said to the students after they made their final presentations. “You guys got started on science. You see what little it takes to get things going. You’ve had some questions in your mind, you’ve tested them, you control as many variables as you can. And then, you present your results.”

Smith added that he was so impressed by the quality of the students’ research that he was going to use it in future discussions and outreach he does with other people.

“They were good. I’m just stoked and surprised,” he said. “They were composed, they knew what was going on, they had serious science here. I’m serious, we are going to use some of this stuff.”

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