Apr
05
2010

My House Hawk

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This is interesting.  We ID birds 200 feet in the air, with backlight conditions, moving in circles and we are incredibly confident in our calls.  Here is a bird, sitting in a small leafless tree in my front yard, “captured”, enlarged and cropped, and we have three or for pretty good birders not quite sure of it’s kind.  Of course John Audubon would know what it “was”.  I say was because he would have shot it, stuffed it and mounted it before he painted it and named it.  Chucky D would probably not know this bird since its range does not include any areas visited by him,  but he would be the first to bring up VARIATIONS.  I recently enjoyed reading the new Dawkins book–The Greatest Show On Earth, and he talks of rabbitness. That is, we all try to explain what the ideal rabbit looks like, but we know deep in our biological souls that there is no perfect rabbit! There is a spectrum of rabbitness. Of course we can look at a hawk and suggest that it is a Coopers Hawk or a Red Shouldered Hawk or a Sharpy, or ……..     We know there is no perfect Cooper or Sharpy that portrays all the characteristics of the Coopers Hawk species. There is Coopers Hawkness or Sharpyness that lies somewhere on a spectrum of characteristics and we deem the bird a Coopers ( or Red Shouldered, or what have you!) So how do the great birders always “get it right?”   First, they don’t always get it right, and second, they use more than just field marks and colors.  They combine marks and colors and patterns and maybe most importantly–behaviors.  That is what my picture is missing–behaviors.   The success of good bird identification is not simply knowing what a bird looks like, it is also knowing what it is doing, how it is behaving.  Maybe the pinnacle of bird spotting is on the top of Hawk Mountain in East Central Pennsylvania.  During the Fall migration hundreds of hawks of various species can be seen.  Think about Darwin’s variations with this scene–  50 or 60 Cooper’s Hawks or over 1600 Broad-winged Hawks that were spotted last September 17th.  Which one was the perfect Broadwing?   How did the spotters know all 1600 were really Broadwinged Hawks?  It is what Barbara McClintock called  ”a feeling for the organism.”  On this same day a total of  1646 hawks of various species passed by Hawk Mountain.  A total of 8 different species of raptors were recorded.  The total for the whole 2009 migration season was  15,592 birds, 21 identified species and 1 in the category “other”.  (I wonder what “other” was.  Is this the only bird they could not identify???)   As I looked over this data I thought about Dawkin’s species problem, the perfect Red Tail, or Cooper, or Bald Eagle.  I also pictured the bell-shaped curves that Darwin’s variation concept predicted.  In fact, I even pictured bell-shaped curves soaring past the North Lookout of Hawk Mountain.  Hawk Curve.001Well, not really, but now that I wrote about it I cannot get the image out of my mind!!   So there it is.  One hawk, one picture, a waterfall of thoughts.

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The young Red-Shouldered returned a few months later and brought along a partner

.  Now I watch them both as they pick off a series of moles and chipmunks that wander along the forest edge in my backyard.

What a lesson in evolution I have unleashed because a young hawk decided to take a rest at 10437 Misty Ridge Drive!!

Oct
30
2009

5,4,3,2,1—Origins!!!!!

Well here it is, almost November.  In my ‘neck-of-the-woods’  (by the way, where did that expression come from?)  Fall is waning, the winds are blowing and the snows of Colorado are threatening.  But this year the month of November brings some special meaning to me  (and to most biologists.)  It is the month in which we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species.  So much has been written and broadcast this year about Darwin and On The  Origin Of Species and evolution itself that maybe the topic has saturated our heads and our classrooms, I hope not!   In Northern Ohio we recently had a “birthday party” for the ‘Origin’ publication.  The Cleveland Regional Association of Biologist (CRABs) hosted a birthday party with a great cake and party favors and even a one hour talk about Darwin –the Man and His Science (of course the one hour talk lasted a bit more than 90 minutes, but that is typical of the speaker.)  As a take-home present for all that attended I created an interactive Origin Calendar.  It started on October 24th and had one activity for each day until November 24th (the official day of publication of On the Origin Of Species — November 24, 1859.)  (Actually the book was shown and sold out –1250 copies–on November 22, 1859.)  The Calendar can be used by anyone that travels to the CRABs web site at  http://crabs-biology.wikispaces.com/Origins+Calendar.  The activities come from all over the Web.  ENSI/SENSI, PBS Evolution Site, Evolution.Berkely.Edu, etc……  The calendar on the site is interactive and clicking on a day will take you to a web activity.  You can also download an interactive PDF file of it from this site.

Here it is:

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

CRABs 'Origin" Calendar

Use it well and use it often.

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Oct
28
2009

The Essential Biology Teacher

A week or so ago I started reading the new Dawkins book, The Greatest Show On Earth. Greatest Show It was on the recommendation of my Aussie friend, Stewart Monckton, (see his Amazon review at http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R1II4L8RD2QWWM/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm.)  Although there is much to think about and to comment upon in Dawkins’ latest discussion of evolution and evolutionary thought, it is the idea of essentialism or Platonic Philosophy that has stuck in my mind right now.

What is Essential Thinking and how does it relate to evolution and maybe more of why it is floating around my head and just what is an Essential Biology Teacher?

Let me explain in Dawkin’s own words:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and rabbits, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The rabbits that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of rabbit, the ideal, essential, Platonic rabbit, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of rabbit.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bunnies. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we all rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Dawkins continues with his discussion of rabbitness and essential thinking and paints a picture of how essential thinking can put a stop to our understanding about how organisms are related to each other and how evolution itself occurs.  Great discussion!!   But as I was reading this I started to think about teachers.  Science teachers.  Specifically about biology teachers.  Is there an essence of biology teacher?  The perfect picture of biology teacher?  In fact lets have some fun with this.  I am going to take Dawkin’s words and do a little substitution.  I’ll be right back, I’m headed for my word processing application to play with this idea of word substitution.  Sit tight, I’ll be right back.

Here we are:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and biology teachers, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The biology teachers that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of biology teacher, the ideal, essential, Platonic biology teacher, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood biology teachers may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of biology teacher.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in biology teachers as a messy departure from the essential biology teacher, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real biology teachers were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Biology teacher In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard biology teacher‘, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bio teacher. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call biology teachers will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent biology teacherness, no essence of biology teacher hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous (this may be going a bit too far, but I continue,) whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Fun, but lets think about this for a short time.  The Essential Biology Teacher ! Is this what the Standards Movement is trying to create?  The perfect biology teacher!  The biology teacher template!  Even the word standard starts to take on a shaky meaning.  Is there a Standard biology course?  Is there even Standard biology knowledge?  Maybe I push too far?  We certainly want our students to have a basic understanding of the biological world.  Should we keep the bell-shaped curve in mind?  I certainly teach biology in a slightly different manner than Wally Hintz did/does (see an earlier post about my mentor Walter Hintz.)  If it was radically different maybe I could not be called a biology teacher, but slight variations are necessary.  Just as Dawkins says “There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit….”  We have to keep an open mind to variants of biology teacher. That is what this blog is all about.  ”Here’s how I do it….”  ”Maybe I need a few new tricks in my classroom….”  ”Did you ever think about trying this web tool?”

Sometimes I get fearful that the “tests” are creating Essential Biology Teachers. What do you think?  I would love to have some of your thoughts about Standards, Testing, and National Curricula.  I dont care what you say, my ears are NOT  longer than Wally Hintz’s!!! AND Becky is NOT growing a beard!!!

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Rich Benz--Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006

Rich Benz–Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006 (Student of Walter Hintz)

Becky Haller--The "New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich BenzBecky Haller–The “New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich Benz
Apr
06
2009

Random Thoughts On A Drive To School

Well, here we go again!

… WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM THIS EVENING THROUGH LATE TUESDAY NIGHT…

A WINTER STORM WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM THIS EVENING THROUGH LATE TUESDAY NIGHT.

STEADY LIGHT SNOW WILL DEVELOP THROUGH MID AFTERNOON WITH HEAVIER ACCUMULATING SNOWS POSSIBLE AFTER DARK. THE MODERATE TO LOCALLY HEAVY LAKE EFFECT SNOWS ARE EXPECTED TO DEVELOP OVERNIGHT AND CONTINUE INTO TUESDAY NIGHT. ACCUMULATIONS FROM LATE AFTERNOON THROUGH MIDNIGHT MAY BE 3 TO LOCALLY 5 INCHES. IF THE PERSISTENT LAKE EFFECT SNOW BANDS MATERIALIZE FOR TUESDAY AND TUESDAY NIGHT THERE WILL BE ADDITIONAL ACCUMULATIONS THAT WILL PUSH AMOUNTS OVER 6 INCHES. A FEW LOCATIONS IN THE HIGHER TERRAIN OF NORTHEAST OHIO INTO NORTHWESTERN PENNSYLVANIA COULD SEE SNOW AMOUNTS AROUND A FOOT.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

A WINTER STORM WATCH MEANS THAT HEAVY SNOW IS POSSIBLE. IF YOU ARE WITHIN THE WATCH AREA… STAY TUNED TO THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE OR THE LOCAL NEWS MEDIA FOR THE LATEST UPDATES AND POSSIBLE WARNINGS.

It is APRIL 6TH!!  Half of the schools in our area are on SPRING break!!  I just finished putting up a new Bluebird Trail at the Environmental Learning Center (more on that later.) dsc02740_3We rushed so that they would be up in time for the birds to find their new digs and establish new nesting sites. I just returned from a lunch with a friend where we were discussing and planning an August trip to Belize with a number of other biology teachers.  I’m listening to the FIRST Major League Baseball game as I write this and then I check to see what the weather is supposed to be.  WHAT?!?  A WINTER STORM WATCH?!?   Well, I do live in Northern Ohio, near a large body of unfrozen water (Lake Erie.)  I should expect it.  But late winter or early spring snow storms are always a big surprise and a big disappointment. I thought for awhile and decided I needed to post this blog entry.  It is a recycled entry from one of my own blogs about winter weather and how it can impact the environment and how it can be used to teach about evolution, Darwin and natural selection.  I was going to hold onto it until next January or February when we had a good snowpack in my back yard.  With the above Winter Weather Advisory I decided now would be just as good a time as any.  Please note as you read it, the dates show some of the important biology education events of 2005 when it was first conceived and written.  So here it is—-

bluebird-snow
Sometimes I wish I lived a bit closer to school. As it is, I have a 25 minute drive to school and a 30 minute drive home. Why the difference? Well, going to school I take a pretty direct route via Interstate and main roads (except the day it was really snowing hard and I didn’t make one of the turns because it was difficult to see the road and realized I was lost about ten minutes into the trip. This is a very strange feeling and might be the subject of a later wandering blog.) On my way home I take the back roads. You might think I would be in a hurry to get home, but actually this is a nice time of the day. I drive on a variety of backcountry roads that remind me of my travels through the countryside of rural Vermont. (Those of you that live in rural Vermont might not think that this is so special, but believe me, it is.) The extra 5 minute drive is a small price to pay for a daily Vermont vacation. I also get to “hunt” for biology as I make my way through the country. It is not unusual to see small groupings of whitetail deer, along with any number of soaring and perched red-tail hawks. I also have to watch out for the occasional wild turkey or two. One day two years ago I turned a corner near the Holden Arboretum (one of the largest arboretums in the world,) and saw a field filled with over 50 wild turkeys. Certainly worth 5 minutes out of my day!!

Actually, I think the 25 minute drive is a good thing. On the way to school, it provides me with the time to switch gears, to remember what happened the day before, and to create. We are teachers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but sometimes our thoughts are focused on other things. The drive to school allows me to refocus. Most importantly, it is the time I use to create new stories. I am sure that the reason I have been able to stay in this profession for 32 years is that it has provided me the opportunity to be creative.

On Friday (1/28/05) it was -3 degrees F. on the outside thermometer when I got up and got ready for work. I looked out into my woods and wondered about the wildlife. How did the birds do? How about the rabbits and deer? Just a passing thought. I went out to get my paper and felt the cold. Now I really wondered how the animals were fairing. But the hour was getting late and I needed to get on the road.

The creative part of my drive was about to begin. How could I use the cold temperature in my classes? I have been thinking a lot about evolution over the past few weeks. It HAS been in the news quite a bit (the Dover, PA. schools decided that the students in their biology classes needed to have the district administrators read a short non-science statement regarding evolution at the start of their unit on evolution and natural selection.) But also, I have been putting together some thoughts about how I teach about evolution since Darwin Day is coming and I am speaking at our local natural history museum’s Darwin Day celebration. So naturally, I thought about the effects of our current weather on the survival of the wildlife. Well, what I really thought about on my cold drive in was Darwin’s thoughts after a similar icy blast in Downe. It is told that Darwin saw dozens of dead birds on his own property at Down House (note the town is Downe and the house is Down.) In Chapter Three of The Origin Of Species, Darwin writes that nearly 4/5′s of the birds on his property failed to survive the winter of 1854-1855. Now how can I slip that bit into the students’ inevitable complaints about having school when the temperature was so low????? Simple, I start my class talking about how I decided if it were two degrees colder I was rolling over and pulling up the blanket. (This way I can say it was actually a bit too warm for me this morning.) So that’s what I did, I taught a little about natural selection to a group of sleepy, crabby, cold 9th graders. I got in a little history of science and even a bit of how birds actually do stay warm on such cold nights. As part of the story  I threw in the expression that it was a “three dog night.” Of course I thought they would instantly recognize the expression because of the music group by the same name. You guessed it–I’m showing my age. No one knew either the expression or the band !!! I had to add to the story a bit, but I threw in some biology about body temperature and animal size. I even ventured into thermoregulation and body covering. I finally got around to a dog’s body temperature and the insulating qualities of fur verses feathers verses skin. I could have gone on and on, but the point was made. Animals have evolved strategies to survive the extremes in their environments. Also, if it is -5 degrees I’m rolling over and pulling up the blanket.

See what can come from a 25-minute drive to work!!

So there it is, we are storytellers.  In fact when people ask me what I do for a living I always tell them that I am a storyteller.  I usually tell stories about biology (not always,) but telling stories is what I do.  My job is to get my audience to listen, to enjoy, and to learn from the stories I tell.  Think about your stories.  Where do you get the info for you own stories?  What adventures can you weave into your teaching?  We take classes to get more stories.  We travel to collect topics. We join organizations like NABT to swap stories and acquire new tales of biology.  What stories do you use in your teaching?  Now we have the BioBlog as a forum for swapping and collecting stories from all over the Biology Education World.  After you read this little tale formulated from the latest NE Ohio weather report, think about sharing one of your own bio-stories and add it by posting a Comment below. picture-001_2_24