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Web Topic 1.1
Animal Communication and Science Education


The authors have been teaching a course in animal communication since 1970, either at Cornell University or the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). One comment frequently made in student evaluations is “I understood and learned more physics in this one term biology course than I learned in a year of regular college physics.” In the 1980s and 1990s, UCSD had over 4000 biology majors and only a tenth as many physics majors. Despite the fact that most of these biology majors had to take college physics, the standard courses largely focused on classical topics of greatest interest to physics majors (and physics faculty). Given the recurrent comments made by the 200–300 students taking animal communication each year, we asked several physics faculty whether they were interested in integrating more animal communication topics into their courses. For various reasons, they were not.

The last decade has seen an enormous effort worldwide to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. One common theme is better integration of the different STEM disciplines in K–12 education. In the USA, central online clearinghouses have been created to promote and distribute innovative and proven STEM curricula and teaching plans. Examples include the websites of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL, http://nsdl.org/) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA, http://www.nsta.org/). The Biosciences Education Network (BEN, http://www.biosciednet.org/portal/) focuses on biology topics, but makes a major effort to integrate other science and math disciplines into its curricula. Despite this broader approach, few programs have sought to exploit animal behavior generally or animal communication specifically as entry points to other science disciplines. A notable exception is the website of the American Biology Teacher, of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT, http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/index.php?p=30), which has published theme issues on animal behavior, including bioacoustics lessons suitable for high school and college courses. Some other sites that are likely to develop biology/physics interface modules include Merlot (http://biology.merlot.org/), Bioquest (http://bioquest.org/), Ecological Society of America (http://tiee.esa.org/vol/toc_all.html), and ABLE (http://www.ableweb.org/proceedings/index.php).

Animal behavior as an educational springboard

A major difference between plants and animals is that animals overtly behave. This behavior typically takes the form of movements or the emission of signals, or both. Few anatomical or biochemical adaptations in animals are effective without some coupled behavior that invokes their use. As a result, behavior is now recognized as a major factor in the biology of any animal, and, although the study of animal behavior is occasionally claimed as a subfield of ecology, psychology, neurobiology, or physiology, the study of animal behavior is now a separate discipline. It has its own highly subscribed journals, academic departments, and international societies, including the Animal Behavior Society (http://animalbehaviorsociety.org/), the Association for the Study of Animal Behavior (http://asab.nottingham.ac.uk/), and the International Society for Behavioral Ecology (http://www.behavecol.com).

Animal behavior is intrinsically an interdisciplinary science. Many of the components studied singly by other disciplines come together in the study of behavior. For example, why different species adopt different behaviors is closely tied to their differing ecologies (Wilson 1975). The kinematics of movement (Alexander 2002), the design and mechanisms for producing and detecting signals (this book), and the energetics of behavior (McNab 2002) are just some of the many facets of animal behavior that are closely tied to basic principles of physics. The physiologies of muscles, brains, digestion, reproduction, immune systems, hormonal controls, and even aging are tightly linked to the behaviors animals perform (Alcock 2009). Animal behavior studies have proved to be superlative testing grounds for modern theories of economics and decision-making (Houston and McNamara 1999; Maynard Smith 1982), and animal models are widely used to help understand the origins of learning and culture in our own species (DeWaal and Tyack 2003; Dugatkin 2009; McGrew 2004). Finally, behavior is now seen as a critical component of any conservation or wildlife management program (Caro 1998; Clemmons and Buchholz 1997; Festa-Bianchet 2003).

The interdisciplinary nature of animal behavior makes the field superbly adapted for both novel science and for stimulating science education. The enormous diversity of behaviors performed by different species when faced with similar challenges allows scientists to examine the relative roles of ecological function, physical or chemical constraints, physiological mechanisms, economic optimality, and cultural adaptation. Scientists can also examine the conservation repercussions of behaviors by undertaking experimental manipulations or by comparing the different solutions achieved by different species, identifying correlates of either convergence or divergence, and then testing emergent hypotheses by examining additional species.

Educational opportunities arise because humans, especially children, are naturally drawn to the behavior of animals. Television programs on nature are extremely popular with both children and adults. Ecotourism is similarly popular, and often focuses on the behavior of charismatic fauna. The universal intrigue of behaving animals creates a potentially powerful entry point for teaching physics, chemistry, physiology, economics, culture, and conservation. However, several problems have hindered this approach. First, many current teachers were never exposed to courses in ecology or animal behavior in their own education. Many do not even know that animal behavior is a legitimate field of science. Thus, they do not have the background to bridge animal behavior to physics, chemistry, or even other areas of biology. Second, those that do have the background and inclination to use this approach are overwhelmed by the amount and diversity of rich media resources on the Internet. Where computer tools might help bridge the disciplines, which ones should they use? Finally, the current emphasis on standardized testing in the United States severely constrains which principles of physics, chemistry, or physiology are to be taught at each grade level. Many behaviors are interesting to students, but to bridge the disciplines effectively, a teacher must find an example that is both interesting to students but also one that leads to the teaching of a current standard. Given that few teachers have time to develop any new curricula on their own, these challenges can be insurmountable.

A major motivation for the establishment of NSDL, NSTA, NABT, and similar programs was to resolve the problems noted above. This meant bringing scientists and educators together to design new curricula that integrated disciplines, selected suitable rich media and experiential (e.g., lab and field) exercises, and aligned content to state standards. The resulting curricula are increasingly used nationwide and even worldwide. Many “hooks” for interesting younger students in physics, chemistry, and mathematics have been devised in these curricula. However, only a few have focused on animal behavior and animal communication. We describe two of these below. There thus remains much unexploited potential for this type of educational bridging.

Innovative curricula starting with animal communication

Several recent efforts have focused specifically on linking animal communication behavior with other disciplines, such as physics. We hope that these examples will inspire future curriculum efforts at all levels.

The Macaulay Library Project

The Macaulay Library (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/page.aspx?pid=1676) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the world’s largest archive of animal sounds, with a growing parallel library of videos. With funding from NSDL and the National Science Foundation (USA), the Macaulay Library undertook an ambitious project to integrate its rich media collection with students’ natural interests in animal behavior and communication and with the teaching of basic physics. Scientists trained in animal communication and K–12 science teachers worked together to identify topics required by state standards, identify the best animal examples in the vast library, and develop lessons and hands-on exercises that demonstrated the focal physics principles. The project was performed in collaboration with the Center for Nanoscale Systems Institute for Physics Teachers (https://www.sce.cornell.edu/ss/programs.php?v=CNS&s=Overview) and the New York Wayne-Finger Lakes Board of Cooperative Educational Services (http://wflboces.org/). The former collaboration focused on modules for high school physics classes, whereas the latter examined opportunities at all ages in K–12 education. The resulting animal communication modules focus on the physics of sound (using animal acoustic signals) and the physics of light (using the generation of colors in bird plumages). Additional modules discuss aerodynamics (by examining bird flight) and the physics of forces (by examining bird beaks). These lessons and associated media are available at the Library’s “Physics of Animal Behavior” website (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/physics). Further bioacoustics lessons for college and AP high school biology can be obtained from the Online Research in Biology project website (http://birds.cornell.edu/orb), an NSF-funded educational effort from the education program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Macaulay Library.

The Sea of Sound Project

A project from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (http://www.nopp.org/), uses sound in the oceans as the “hook” topic to teach students a variety of state-standard principles in physics and biology. It is aimed at grades 6–12. The sound signals used by whales and dolphins figure prominently, but the curriculum also includes sound production by marine invertebrates and discussion of anthropogenic noise and its effects on communication of marine animals. These curriculum resources feature high-definition video footage of marine organisms and other multimedia segments that explore underwater communication and how it is impacted by sound from human-created activities, such as shipping and oil exploration. They also highlight the right whale monitoring efforts led by scientists from the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://listenforwhales.org). Activities include everything from role-playing debates on the use of sonar to examining whale sounds recorded by multiple underwater buoys to calculate the speed of sound in salt water. Tables in the educator materials provide an at-a-glance overview of alignment between specific elements of the curriculum and the National Science Education Standards for middle school and high school. These classroom activities can be found at the Sea of Sound website (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Page.aspx?pid=2207).

Literature Cited

Alcock, J. 2009. Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach, 8th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Alexander, R. M. 2002. Principles of Animal Locomotion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Caro, T. 1998. Behavioral Ecology and Conservation Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clemmons, J. R. and R. Buchholz. 1997. Behavioral Approaches to Conservation in the Wild. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DeWaal, F. B. M. and P. L. Tyack. 2003. Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dugatkin, L. A. 2009. Principles of Animal Behavior. 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.

Festa-Bianchet, M. 2003. Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation. Chicago: Island Press.

Houston, A. I. and J. M. McNamara. 1999. Models of Adaptive Behaviour: An Approach Based on State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. 1982. Evolution and the Theory of Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McGrew, W. 2004. The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McNab, B. K. 2002. The Physiological Ecology of Vertebrates: A View from Energetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University press.

Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.