Dissecting owl pellets is such a common activity in science classrooms that it would be easy to think, “ho hum, not this again.” Owl pellets, for those who have never seen one, are the undigested remains of the animals (usually 1-3, depending on the owl species and prey availability) an owl has eaten, that it regurgitates 6-12 hours after the meal. But for students, investigating owl pellets, cataloguing what they contain, identifying the animal/s that the owl fed on, seeing a portion of the food web, an ecosystem up close and personal, is brand new and exciting. Exciting because it’s vaguely repellant, and they get to express their disgust and aversion, while also being morbidly fascinating, which allows students to put their aversion to one side and dive in to the investigation. It’s anything but “ho hum” to them. They are children, after all.
I saw this first hand last week in the 7th grade classroom of Thomas Ziencina at Till Elementary in Chicago. Students who began with a strong negative reaction — “Eew, I’m not touching that!” — were soon bent over their shared owl pellet eagerly teasing out femurs and ribs and skulls, oh my! Classroom management was a non-issue, the activity was so compelling for them. And there’s a developmental reason for this.
Kieran Egan in Romantic Understanding: The Development of Rationality and Imagination, Ages 8 – 15 (1990), argues that children during these years are best engaged by things that they can connect with emotionally. Things that are strange have a special appeal. The icky, bizarre, macabre, frightening, repulsive are things their minds love to play with and tend to remember. Owl pellets fit that to a T. They are a physical hands-on manifestation of the drama of life and death. Owls are creatures of the night and thereby mysterious. And for city children, they are exotic. For teachers, the potential to tie language arts into a science investigation of owl pellets is enormous. Poetry, first person narratives from either the owl’s or the prey’s point of view, or an impassioned plea on the preservation of spotted owl habitat (pro or con) would be perfect options for students at this developmental stage to choose from.
The Internet is full of lessons based on owl pellets. There are even Youtube videos like the musical one that Mr. Ziencina used to begin his class. Just Google. Owl pellets are appropriate at multiple grade levels and can be revisited at several grades during a student’s education at increasing levels of detail and complexity. Most importantly, when students dissect owl pellets they are acting like scientists. They are building skills of careful observation, pattern recognition, and data collection. They are (hopefully) recording their findings and their reflections in their science journals, doing scientific drawings of what they see. They are learning to be careful in their use of instruments and evidence. They are getting a taste of what it is that scientists actually do, and that’s a whole lot more engaging than reading a chapter on the food web in a science textbook.
One advantage of NGSS, is that it allows us to revisit some of these tried and true science activities for a fresh understanding of why and how they became so essential to our science curricula. Take a look at the range of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that a carefully constructed owl pellets study could address:
S&EP 1: Asking questions (for science)
S&EP 3: Planning and carrying out investigations
S&EP 4: Analyzing and interpreting data
S&EP 5: Using mathematics and computational thinking
S&EP 6: Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
S& EP 7: Engaging in argument from evidence
S&EP 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
LS2.B: Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems
LS2.C: Ecosystems Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience
CC 1: Patterns
CC 2: Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
CC 3: Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
CC 4: Systems and system models
CC 5: Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
CC 6: Structure and function
CC 7: Stability and change
Now that’s a lot of bang for your buck!