Cougars and the Community: Through Field Investigations and Civic Participation, Students Research Human/cougar Relationships

Article excerpt

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All over the world, big cats are disappearing because humans have not learned to coexist with them. In a research collaboration with government biologists and university educators, K-12 students in the Cle Elum-Roslyn (CER) School District in eastern Washington are investigating where cougars (Puma concolor) go when their habitat gives way to new housing developments. Now in its seventh year, Project Cougars and Teaching (CAT) is taking the education and science partnership a step further by incorporating civics into the environmental education curriculum (see "On the web" at the end of this article). Through this model, students become civically engaged by conducting field investigations of the indigenous cougar's ecology and making public presentations to the community.

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This article describes the project's use of two curriculum models--one for field investigations and one for civic participation--in the context of studying human/ cougar interactions. These models can also be used to guide other community studies. In addition, the curriculum is a prime example of how a community wildlife problem is bringing together diverse community interests to address a given need (CEE 2002; Quitadamo and Campanella 2005).

Field investigations of natural systems

In 2003, Pacific Education Institute (PEI), an organization involved in Project CAT, convened a panel of experts, including teachers and wildlife biologists working on the project, to define three types of field investigations for science inquiry--descriptive, comparative, and correlative. Descriptive field investigations involve describing or quantifying parts of a natural system. In comparative field investigations, data is collected on different populations or organisms, or under different conditions (e.g., times of year, locations) to make a comparison. Correlative field investigations involve measuring or observing two variables and searching for a pattern (Windschitl et al. 2007).

Many field investigations, regardless of type, begin with counts to gather baseline data; later, measurements are intentionally taken in different locations (e.g., urban and rural, or where some natural phenomenon has created different plot conditions) because scientists suspect they will find a difference based on location. The field investigation model has supported curriculum reform efforts by creating a common language, or inquiry framework, among students, teachers, and scientists.

Using the field investigation model in Project CAT, elementary, middle, and high school students are tracking cougar locations to answer descriptive, comparative, and correlative research questions (Figure 1). All K-12 students involved in the project study cougar prey by reporting elk, deer, and dog locations along rural country roads. While elementary students study natural components of cougars' local environment (e.g., species of fish and wildlife, habitat, water, forests), middle and high school students map cougar locations and study cougar growth and development.

The field investigations that students conduct involve essential features of scientific inquiry (Content Standard A), such as asking "a question about objects, organisms, and events in the environment," planning a systematic approach to data collection, and developing "descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence" (NRC 1996, pp. 122, 145). In addition, the investigations help students develop skills, such as mapping and perspective-taking, to study community sites (CEE 2002).

A comparative study

In the following sections, the field investigation model is described with a focus on a comparative study of male versus female cougar habitat range. Middle and high school students collect and analyze data through time. Working alongside wildlife biologists, students capture cougars, tag them with global positioning system (GPS) collars--which provide more than 2,000 location readings for each animal per year--mark them with ear tags, and collect physical data (i. …