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A Week in Six Minutes
Simulating real science problems in a classroom can help change children’s attitudes and understanding. TERRY HARRISON describes a simulation that involves children in physically acting out what happens in a week in the life of a kookaburra family.
IT IS SOMETIMES DIFFICULT to investigate real science problems first hand. However, teachers can involve students in an issue by simulating the problem in the classroom. While this is not the same as the real thing, it does allow immediacy and involvement. Advantages of a hands-on simulation include physically involving students who take on various roles. Various authors have shown that simulations can trigger change in attitudes, behaviour and creativity by, for example, increasing students’ motivation, improving classroom atmosphere, identifying misunderstandings and allowing students to develop mental models for concepts which are otherwise difficult to observe in the real world.
Kookaburras and their prey: an ecological simulation
The simulation described here includes a hands-on component that may act as a starting point for exploring science issues related to ecology and interactions among organisms and their environment. The simulation could be used, for example, to investigate the life and ecology of a native bird, or for investigating predator/prey relationships.
This simulation has been used in upper primary and early secondary classrooms and with teacher education students. It requires the teacher to set the context and to allocate roles to students. It is designed for groups of 25–30 students and the hands-on component takes about one hour. It uses readily available materials and requires some preparation. Concepts include: the prey population upon which it feeds will influence the population of a predator; and people may affect the survival of native animals.
Setting up the simulation
It is based on a small population of kookaburras. There are two types of birds: adults (parents and auxiliaries) and juveniles (offspring). The parents (selected students) prey upon an assortment of prey such as lizards, snakes, insects, etc (small round chocolates or beans) by grabbing them with their beaks (forks). They feed prey to their offspring (other students) who hold them in their stomachs (paper cups) and also to themselves so they don’t starve. Different types of prey are represented by the different coloured small round chocolates. The green small round chocolates represent a type of prey that has ingested a significant amount of a pesticide. Students are not told this until after the simulation (the kookaburras don’t know either).
Teachers who have used this simulation set up about four families varying in size from two to six individuals. Most have two parents (some may have three adults) but at least one is a single parent (kookaburras do die). A good combination is two adults, four offspring; two adults (one with chipped beak – break off part of the fork), five offspring; two adults, three offspring; one adult, four offspring; three adults, two offspring.
An area chosen to be a field is covered with a multicoloured tablecloth (the forest floor) and about 100 each of four colours of small round chocolates spread over the cloth. The families go to their nests, which are four to five metres from the field. The parents use only their beaks to carry prey (no hands) one at a time to their offspring and place it in their cups. They feed themselves first and then again after every three chick feedings. Any prey that falls to the floor is lost and cannot be eaten. The offspring make a ‘squawking’ noise to attract adults to feed them.
The simulation lasts five to six minutes representing a week in the life of a kookaburra. The time is not critical but at least half the offspring need seven to eight prey in their cups. The simulation is stopped and each group counts the number and type of prey in each individual’s stomach. Students are told that each kookaburra needed seven prey to survive. Any individual with less is now dead. Also, they were told that the green small round chocolates were prey which had eaten food with a large amount of pesticide. Any individual with one green small round chocolate is sick and with two or more is dead.
Students design tables to record their individual family’s results and the whole group’s results. The results are shared to give an overall picture of what happened. The class then discusses questions such as:
- Why might some prey survive when others don’t?
- Did someone with five small round chocolates, including two green, die of starvation or pesticide?
- How many adult kookaburras will there be if all surviving juveniles grow up?
- Is this population of kookaburras getting bigger or smaller?
- In a natural environment, why does the number of kookaburras stay much the same each year?
- How many kookaburras died of starvation and how many from pesticides?
- What sort of chemicals used in a garden might cause this?
- How else might people affect kookaburra populations?
- Did the number of offspring in a family affect their survival?
- How might other birds affect the kookaburra population?
The teachers were unanimously impressed by the positive responses of students to this activity and reported that students had fun, enjoyed the activity and had high levels of motivation and participation. All had a role and none had to be cajoled into participating. Some teachers commented that this form of whole body kinesthetic learning suited many students and was not often used in their classrooms. During the simulation, students said things like ‘this is fun’, ‘wow’ and ‘oh, no I think I killed myself ’, indicating a high degree of sensory and emotional involvement. After the simulation, students said things like ‘it was fun and good to learn about kookaburras’, ‘the “parents” had a hard job because they had to feed their children as well as themselves’ and ‘it shows how hard it is for them to survive’, indicating a degree of cognitive involvement as well.
Overall, the students’ values and beliefs changed subtly, reflecting greater awareness of and concern for the environment. They had increased their commitment to protect the environment and prevent environmental problems. Also, they achieved outcomes related to understanding kookaburras and their environment, and the effect of people on the survival of native animals. The teachers noticed students’ vocabulary development, with more specific language being used after the simulation.
Benefits for students
The students themselves recognised that their knowledge and attitudes had changed as a result of the simulation. They acknowledged that the experience was enjoyable and had led to a great deal of interaction and participation. Importantly, they believed that it was not only enjoyable but also had increased their knowledge about kookaburras and their sense of responsibility about environmental problems.
Some of the disadvantages raised by the teachers included the time taken to prepare for the simulation and that the classroom was noisy and boisterous at times. None felt that this would deter them from using such simulations in the future. Overall, this was a very successful hands-on simulation for both teachers and students. These outcomes are based on surveys and anecdotal responses of the students. (See Harrison and Clark, 2003 for details).
Further information on materials, setting up and implementing is given in Harrison and Clark (2000).
Harrison, T & Clark, J (2000). ‘Kookaburras and polluted streams’, Investigating: Australian Primary and Junior Science Journal, vol 16 (2), pp 20–8.
Harrison, T & Clark, J (2003). ‘Implementing an ecological simulation: Do children’s knowledge and attitudes change?’, Australian Journal of Environmental Education, vol 19, pp 37–46.
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