Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Caught in Their Tracks: Students Develop Research Projects in Wildlife Ecology

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Caught in Their Tracks: Students Develop Research Projects in Wildlife Ecology

Article excerpt


Ask students why they like biology or environmental science, and you often hear responses that reflect their love of animals and the outdoors. In reality, biology and environmental science classes do teach about organisms and the environment, but often do not allow students to actually experience these things. Traditional science laboratory-based activities can provide a restricted view of modern science. Therefore, authentic and meaningful experiences in biology and environmental science education--particularly field investigations--are necessary for students to gain insight into the complex world of science that is all around us.

By allowing students to develop and conduct research on biological or environmental problems they identify themselves, students gain a higher level of understanding and appreciation for science. To this end, teachers should incorporate student-driven research in biology and environmental science classes in lieu of cookbook laboratory activities with a specific expected outcome. In this article, I describe a student-driven research project in which a high school class developed a hypothesis and experimental design regarding wildlife ecology.

Student field investigations

Tapping into the broader community of science and drawing from multiple contexts, including those outside of schools, can provide more authentic science experiences for students (Braund and Reiss 2006). Field investigations can make biology and environmental science more authentic, especially when students have had little experience in the natural environment. Many students find science meaningful when they are able to discover the connectedness between science and nature, and student research on the environment is a significant way to connect students with their larger community, and vice versa.

Student-driven research allows students to develop and conduct investigations on environmental and biological problems they identify themselves. Through creativity, observation, and problem solving, students will leave the experience with a better understanding of both the biological and environmental principles studied and the process of conducting authentic environmental science.


In the student-driven research project described in this article, the high school class developed a hypothesis and experimental design regarding the relationship between land development and species abundance, the number of different species in a given area. The class worked together to compile data, analyze results, and create class presentations to share the conclusions of the experiment. Students then presented their study as a poster at a national wildlife science conference.

This project addresses the National Science Education Content Standard A, which states that all students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry (NRC 1996, p. 173). It also addresses Teaching Standard A, which states that science for all students should be developmentally appropriate, interesting, and relevant to students' lives; emphasize student understanding through inquiry; and be connected with other school subjects (NRC 1996, p. 30). This activity is relevant because it relates to the community development occurring in students' backyards, interesting because it is a unique activity that gets students building things and working outside, and inquiry-based because students design, carry out, and analyze the study themselves.

Identifying a problem

The project took place over the course of three weeks in a wildlife ecology class I taught as a high school science teacher in the southeastern United States. The high school is in the middle of an area undergoing rapid urban and suburban development. On the first day of the project, class began with a discussion about land development, including the new shopping centers and housing tracts being built in the area. …

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