Are squirrels more active in mornings or afternoons? Do ducks swim faster on Tuesdays or Thursdays?
While such questions may seem odd, they're typical of the kinds of research topics that students have pursued in Deborah Gordon's undergraduate class on behavioral ecology.
"It's important that student research asks genuine questions," said Gordon, a professor of biological sciences. "It doesn't really matter if the question is silly."
Gordon's comments came during her Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching lecture, "Understanding the Process of Discovery: Research as a Teaching Tool," held at the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building on Thursday. The lecture series is sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning.
"It disturbs me to see people giving students projects in class where the answer is already known," Gordon told the audience. "I think that is a really unauthentic experience."
A better approach, she said, is for students to design their own project.
"The point of this is to take everybody through the research process," she explained. "What's important to me as a teacher is to give students a sense of what this process is: Where do things that we know scientifically come from? How do we find out things? That makes it much more important than delivering the outcome of research as a kind of a finished package and asking students just to accept it."
<b>Research as a learning tool</b>
An expert on ant ecology and behavior, Gordon earned a bachelor's degree in French at Oberlin College before receiving a master's degree in biology from Stanford and a doctorate in zoology from Duke University. For the past two decades, she has conducted elaborate field experiments designed to unravel the mysteries of how ant colonies are organized.
Gordon said that a research project itself can be an important teaching tool. As an example, she cited her spring lecture course, Behavioral Ecology, in which each student is required to conduct an independent research project on some aspect of animal behavior. First, the student selects a critter and sets up a regular observation schedule to monitor its behavior for two hours a week. Many choose to study wild birds or squirrels, although some have opted to observe lizards in a pet store window or even house pets.
"My rule about pets is that it can't be just a single animal," Gordon said. "You can't work with your own dog or cat, because then what you're really looking at is the interaction between you and your animal. But if you have more than one of whatever it is, if you have two dogs or two cats or two goldfish, that's fine."
For some undergraduates, figuring out which animal to study can be daunting. "I'll work very hard to deal with the terror that students experience when they're starting a project—that they don't know what they're going to do; they don't know if they're going to get the right answer—and just persuade them that it's going OK," she said. "Just go out and find an animal and just watch it. You don't know what you're doing yet."
After three weeks of observation, the student has to come up with a research topic and decide how to go about collecting data. Many of the same questions come up year after year, such as comparing the behavior of black and gray squirrels, even though they are the same species.
"They can't hope, in a 10-week course, to really push back the frontiers of knowledge on the behavior of [an] animal," Gordon observed, although "some people do really amazing projects."
<b>Deciding what's true</b>
As the weeks progress and data accumulate, the project becomes more quantitative and statistical. This is often the most difficult part of the course, Gordon said, because students frequently have a limited background in statistics. By the time they've turned in their final paper, the students should have a genuine understanding of the research process, she added—how you get from simply watching animals to saying something new about their behavior.
In addition to individual research, Gordon's students also participate in a variety of group projects, including a 12-year study of the Argentine ant invasion in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Building on the work of previous classes is especially important for ecologists, Gordon said, and also encourages older students to work with younger ones.
Gordon's lecture was delivered a few hours after the inauguration of President George W. Bush, which she called "a very sad and frightening day, precisely because I feel that the Bush administration represents an attitude toward what's true which is really upsetting to me—namely, that not only that it doesn't matter what's true, but that they have relied on millions of people also not caring what's true. Were there weapons of mass destruction or were there not weapons of mass destruction? That's a question that actually has an answer.
"I think of research, the kind of research I do, as a procedure for deciding what's true. I guess I feel that, as a teacher in the U.S. in 2005, maybe the best that I can contribute to the future citizens of this country is a sense that it really does matter what's true, and that we have a way of finding out, and that that way of finding out actually can be applied very broadly to all kinds of questions."
Coit "Chip" Blacker, director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies, will present the next Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching lecture at noon Thursday, Feb. 10, in the Hartley Conference Center in the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building. For details, visit http://ctl.stanford.edu/Events.
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