This inquiry-based activity for high school students introduces concepts of ecology and the importance of data analysis to science. Using an investigative case, students generate independent questions about birds, access Cornell Lab of Ornithology online resources to collect data, organize and graph data using Excel, and make claims based on evidence.

When we decided to create a case study with data exploration to begin a freshman biology class, our goal was to start students out with an authentic inquiry activity introducing the nature of science and scientific practice skills for analyzing and interpreting data and engaging in argument from evidence (NGSS Lead States, 2013). We discovered that the activity also cultivates an atmosphere in which talking about and referring to data and evidence becomes a regular part of classroom discourse.

This activity is implemented over the first three 60-minute periods of the school year. By design, there are few prerequisites beyond basic Internet and computer skills. Teachers should be prepared to provide scaffolding to students who are not comfortable with Excel spreadsheet software (see Table 1). We expect that students will already understand that tables organize data, that graphs visualize data, and how to make a line graph.

Table 1.

Scaffolding for Excel.

Teaching how to use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets may seem like a costly time investment for a science class, but you can continue to use it throughout the year and it will improve students’ college and career readiness.
1 It’s tempting to group students who have Excel skills with students who have low proficiency, but we found that the engagement of students with low proficiency suffers. We recommend that teachers put students with little or no Excel proficiency together and spend more time with these groups, while allowing the other groups to forge ahead, collecting more data and experimenting with advanced graph settings. 
2 Demonstrate how to create a table and a line graph using a small amount of data and allow students to do the same on their computers. 
3 Have some of these steps in a handout form for visual learners. 
4 Show how to modify axis labels so that students begin to see options for customizing their graphs. Ask students to figure out how to make a modification to their graph and then share the modification they learned with the rest of the students (such as changing colors, axis increments, fonts, how the legend is displayed). 
5 Helpful resources
 
Teaching how to use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets may seem like a costly time investment for a science class, but you can continue to use it throughout the year and it will improve students’ college and career readiness.
1 It’s tempting to group students who have Excel skills with students who have low proficiency, but we found that the engagement of students with low proficiency suffers. We recommend that teachers put students with little or no Excel proficiency together and spend more time with these groups, while allowing the other groups to forge ahead, collecting more data and experimenting with advanced graph settings. 
2 Demonstrate how to create a table and a line graph using a small amount of data and allow students to do the same on their computers. 
3 Have some of these steps in a handout form for visual learners. 
4 Show how to modify axis labels so that students begin to see options for customizing their graphs. Ask students to figure out how to make a modification to their graph and then share the modification they learned with the rest of the students (such as changing colors, axis increments, fonts, how the legend is displayed). 
5 Helpful resources
 

We customized this lesson to represent the ecology of the students’ home state of New Jersey. Incorporating local ecology into the classroom increases the relevance of the subject for students and increases their investment in the results. It may also help foster the development of environmental sensitivity (Sward & Marcinkowski, 2005). Here, we include instructions to customize this activity for your region. We use two online resources from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: eBird, a citizen-science bird check-list website, and All About Birds, a field guide to the birds of North America. These resources have an established value for supporting classroom inquiry investigations (Trautmann et al., 2012).

Learning Objectives

Additional, related goals can arise organically out of the activity, either through student questions or in response to a well-placed question by the teacher, but the following are our favorite points. By the end, students should understand that

  • The nature of science starts with asking testable questions and trying to answer them, which usually leads to more questions.

  • Science doesn’t always have to occur in a wet-lab or field situation.

  • Data come from different sources, but not all sources are reliable or complete.

  • Excel is for organizing data and generating graphs, which are helpful ways to understand data and present evidence to support conclusions.

  • There is a difference between cause–effect and correlation.

Introducing the Lesson

The activity begins in a traditional case-based learning format with a story given to the class. Students take turns reading it aloud.

Birds of a Feather Squawk Together

“Bye.” Stacey waved to her parents as she watched the car disappear in the distance. Once more, Stacey and her younger brother, Dylan, were staying at their grandparents’ home in Princeton, NJ, while their parents were traveling for work. It was a warm evening in the middle of April.

The next day, Stacey woke up earlier than usual, sat up in bed and looked out the window. “Oh – what is all that noise?” She groaned and fell back on her pillow. “It’s those birds, again. Don’t they ever go away?” When she realized she wasn’t going to fall back asleep, Stacey got up, put on some clothes, and trudged downstairs.

As she entered the kitchen, Stacey looked out the window and could see a red bird with an orange beak at the bird feeder. She also could see other types of birds hopping around the yard. Dylan sat at the table, eating a bowl of cereal.

“Good morning, Stacey. Would you like some breakfast?” Her grandmother was standing by the stove.

“Oh, I don’t know. Those birds woke me up. I don’t see why they have to make all of that noise.”

Her grandfather seemed oblivious to the fact that Stacey was annoyed by the bird behavior. He just nodded his head and said, “Yes, it seems like every year we hear the wood thrush earlier and earlier in the month. I am sure that when your mother was a child, we never heard or saw them until May.”

“Oh dear, I don’t know about that,” said Grandma. “Aren’t there some birds that are around all year, like that red bird, the northern cardinal?”

“Some birds stay all year round, yes,” said Grandpa. “But I know the wood thrush migrates here every spring and leaves for winter. Just like your little hummingbirds that you look forward to every year.”

Grandma considered this. “Well, that may be true. I never know anymore when I should put my special hummingbird feeder out in spring. Now, what can I fix you for breakfast, Stacey? I promised your mother that we would make sure you ate some decent food.”

Stacey thought for a moment. “Then, I guess I will have some scrambled eggs.”

At the end of the story, the teacher asks, “What is this story about?” Students are given 2 minutes to jot down ideas before sharing them with the class as the teacher records them. Two questions are then written on the board: (1) “What do we know?” and (2) “What do we need to know?” (Stanley & Waterman, 2013). Students are instructed to write down ideas that are inspired by the story for 2 minutes, then to discuss the ideas with a partner. What do students already know about birds or spring or other topics related to the story? What does the story make them wonder about, that they would like to know more about? After 5 minutes of discussion, the teacher asks the students to share one item from the “What do we know” category, then one from the “What do we need to know” category, and adds the ideas to the board. The teacher accepts all answers and records them as spoken. This allows the teacher to assess students’ current knowledge and gives students the opportunity to practice formulating their own questions.

After all the students have shared, we expect that three key ideas will appear somewhere on the list. Students may ask, “When should Stacey’s grandmother put out her hummingbird feeder?” and “Is Grandpa correct that birds are arriving earlier in spring?” A third question would be something that could be answered by a reference guide about birds, such as “What is a wood thrush?”, “Why do birds migrate?”, or “Why do birds sing?” If they have not yet offered any such questions, the teacher may ask the students to return to the story and see if any of the characters have things that they are wondering about. Allow time for students to develop questions.

Next, review the students’ knowledge and the offered questions with the class. Are some questions answered by the “What do we know” category? Which questions could be answered by consulting reference books or an expert? Which questions are about facts, and which are about opinions? Which ones are testable questions? This is a good opportunity to discuss what makes a question scientific. The teacher should focus the discussion on these questions.

Finding Information from Reliable Sources

At this time, the class should move to computers, which may be shared among students to facilitate group learning. The teacher directs the class to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide). The teacher allows students a few minutes to explore the site, telling them that at the end of the time they will be asked “What kinds of information can be found on this site?” and “Can I trust the information found on this site? Why or why not?” Students may be given a few questions to answer to direct their exploration. Information on this site can be considered reliable, since it’s curated by experts in the field from Cornell University.

The Hummingbird Question

The class starts with “When should Grandma put out her hummingbird feeder?” Our New Jersey characters have only one hummingbird to consider: the ruby-throated hummingbird. Sometimes other hummingbirds accidentally wind up in New Jersey, but this is rare. Students can use the All About Birds website to make a list of what hummingbirds pass through or live in their area. Each hummingbird’s North American range map can be found under “taxonomy” for “swifts and hummingbirds.” If you’re in a region where you have a year-round resident hummingbird (such as California), you might plan ahead and change your story to center around the arrival of a different bird that does migrate away.

When can one expect a hummingbird to arrive in the story’s setting? For this question, students can consult data. Introduce a new resource: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website (http://www.ebird.org). First, have students investigate the reliability of the site, using the same questions as earlier. Point students to the “About” tab on the eBird website to guide their understanding that this is a “citizen science” website – the data are collected by scientists, citizens, even students. Anyone who learns how to identify birds can contribute – the students themselves could go outside, find birds, and add their own data to this site. Discuss with the students what that might mean about the quality of the data (essentially that there could be mistakes, but that the people at Cornell do try to curate the data for obvious errors).

Direct students to the “Explore Data” tab in order to answer the question about hummingbirds. Allow them to explore and struggle with this for a little while. Eventually they should find the “Arrivals and Departures” section. This section reports the first sighting of the year for every species of bird that was found there in a given year.

There will be many birds showing the “first of year” sighting as January 1. Does that mean that the bird arrived on January 1, or was the bird probably also there on December 31? Many ducks, for example, migrate down to the United States from Canada for the winter, and there are many kinds of birds that reside in places all year round. Even hummingbirds, on rare occasions, might overwinter in an atypical area because some kind person has been maintaining a hummingbird feeder. Rare sightings like this are likely to end up on eBird because people like to record them for their novelty.

Are Birds Arriving Earlier?

“Arrivals and Departures” can be used to verify the grandfather’s observation that birds seem to be arriving earlier these days than in the past. By changing the years displayed, students can work through time to see when the first sighting of the year occurred for birds of their choosing. Students might test Grandpa’s question and see if he could be right, or develop their own questions. Students must support or refute the grandfather’s observations in the story, or their own ideas, using appropriate data. Working in small groups of three or four, students should come up with a claim, support the claim with evidence, and share the results with the class. The teacher also instructs the students that they will be using the program Excel to visualize and share data and present evidence for their claims.

If pursuing the grandfather’s question, we suggest that each group investigate the arrival dates of three or four birds. Students will need to choose birds that migrate into the area in spring by consulting All About Birds. Table 2 shows New Jersey arrival dates for three bird species.

Table 2.

New Jersey’s earliest recorded sightings of ruby-throated hummingbird, eastern wood-pewee, and red-eyed vireo, 1983–2012, from the eBird website.

YearYear NumberRuby-Throated HummingbirdEastern Wood-PeweeRed-Eyed Vireo
1983 7-May 18-May 6-May 
1984 27-May 25-May 12-May 
1985 7-May 7-May 7-May 
1986 2-May 18-Apr 2-May 
1987 29-Aug 13-May 11-May 
1988 8-May 15-May 11-May 
1989 12-May 20-May 2-May 
1990 28-Apr 10-May 28-Apr 
1991 30-Apr 16-May 1-May 
1992 10 9-May 14-May 9-May 
1993 11 1-May 11-May 4-May 
1994 12 23-Apr 7-May 27-Apr 
1995 13 26-Apr 13-May 22-Apr 
1996 14 3-May 27-Apr 27-Apr 
1997 15 1-May 4-May 2-May 
1998 16 7-May 7-May 24-Apr 
1999 17 29-Apr 12-May 8-May 
2000 18 6-Apr 9-May 5-May 
2001 19 3-May 8-May 4-Apr 
2002 20 1-Apr 4-May 8-Apr 
2003 21 28-Apr 3-May 18-Apr 
2004 22 24-Apr 6-May 24-Apr 
2005 23 16-Apr 4-May 21-Apr 
2006 24 21-Apr 4-May 16-Apr 
2007 25 1-Jan 28-Apr 22-Apr 
2008 26 21-Apr 1-May 20-Apr 
2009 27 8-Apr 2-May 8-Apr 
2010 28 1-Jan 30-Apr 8-Apr 
2011 29 7-Apr 25-Apr 19-Apr 
2012 30 9-Apr 21-Apr 8-Apr 
YearYear NumberRuby-Throated HummingbirdEastern Wood-PeweeRed-Eyed Vireo
1983 7-May 18-May 6-May 
1984 27-May 25-May 12-May 
1985 7-May 7-May 7-May 
1986 2-May 18-Apr 2-May 
1987 29-Aug 13-May 11-May 
1988 8-May 15-May 11-May 
1989 12-May 20-May 2-May 
1990 28-Apr 10-May 28-Apr 
1991 30-Apr 16-May 1-May 
1992 10 9-May 14-May 9-May 
1993 11 1-May 11-May 4-May 
1994 12 23-Apr 7-May 27-Apr 
1995 13 26-Apr 13-May 22-Apr 
1996 14 3-May 27-Apr 27-Apr 
1997 15 1-May 4-May 2-May 
1998 16 7-May 7-May 24-Apr 
1999 17 29-Apr 12-May 8-May 
2000 18 6-Apr 9-May 5-May 
2001 19 3-May 8-May 4-Apr 
2002 20 1-Apr 4-May 8-Apr 
2003 21 28-Apr 3-May 18-Apr 
2004 22 24-Apr 6-May 24-Apr 
2005 23 16-Apr 4-May 21-Apr 
2006 24 21-Apr 4-May 16-Apr 
2007 25 1-Jan 28-Apr 22-Apr 
2008 26 21-Apr 1-May 20-Apr 
2009 27 8-Apr 2-May 8-Apr 
2010 28 1-Jan 30-Apr 8-Apr 
2011 29 7-Apr 25-Apr 19-Apr 
2012 30 9-Apr 21-Apr 8-Apr 

Source:http://ebird.org, accessed August, 2012.

Note that since this table was created in 2012, and eBird is constantly being updated with new historical sightings of birds, recreating these figures at any point may give new, and more updated, results.

The students can divide up the work so that one navigates the website to find data and another records the data in a science notebook. While circulating in the class, the teacher can point out the ways that different groups are recording the data, asking them to explain why they chose to record their data in the ways they have and asking those that have made well-organized tables to share the strategy with other groups. If students choose to ask their own questions, these must be scientific and approved by the teacher.

Although the eBird website was launched in 2002, it is possible to find a great deal of data for years prior to 2002. Birding clubs, organizations, and individuals with historical records and journals have been entering data into eBird going back many more years. This would be a good point for discussion among the class – what would one expect could happen to the “first of year sighting” in later years when more people are entering data, compared to earlier years when there are fewer people participating? The answer is complicated – this issue of variation in “effort” when data were collected is one of the primary challenges for scientists who use data collected by citizen scientists.

Students can choose their specific town or county to look for “first of year sightings,” but if you are customizing the story for your area, we suggest using the entire state in most cases. This helps guarantee that you will have many sightings, and more data should produce a clearer result. For states that cover a wide range of latitudes, like California, you may get better and more reliable data sets by selecting a highly populated county that you expect would contribute a lot of sightings.

After students collect data in a table, the next step is to try to visualize the data over time using a graph. The data can be entered into Excel (Table 2), which can then be used to generate a graph (Figure 1). Note that Table 2 and Figure 1 are examples; student graphs can look different, depending on the chosen birds and how the students customize their graphs and tables. As long as the data are collected meticulously, and the presentation of the data is clear and purposeful, variation in tables and graphs should be not only acceptable but encouraged. Students might be asked to justify their decisions on how they presented the data. Some students may be familiar with Excel, but others may need additional help.

Figure 1.

Graph of data from Table 1, using Microsoft Excel. Three outliers for the ruby-throated hummingbird are allowed to fall outside the range of the axis in order to best show overall trends.

Figure 1.

Graph of data from Table 1, using Microsoft Excel. Three outliers for the ruby-throated hummingbird are allowed to fall outside the range of the axis in order to best show overall trends.

Interpreting Data, Feedback from Peers, Revisiting Hypotheses

Real data are messy. There may be holes in the data – years in which, for some reason, a bird showed up exceptionally early or late – and data that simply don’t show a clear trend. These are teachable moments for students because they indicate the real challenges of doing science. The messiness of real data is why it’s helpful to have students select four different species – this increases the odds of a group finding something interesting to discuss. Also, the sharing of results collected by different groups helps develop a larger picture of trends across many species, despite the variability that real data present.

During data interpretation, it can be helpful to remind students to think about the question they originally chose; the data table and graphs they generate should help them answer that question. The answer they provide should be backed up by the evidence (data and graphs) and explained in a paragraph. Students make a poster, either electronic or on paper, and present their findings to the class. The posters should show the question with the answer the students determined (the claim), the evidence (including a graph of the data), and the reasoning for the claim. The poster can be divided into four blocks, labeled “Question,” “Answer (or Claim),” “Evidence,” and “Reasoning.” If done electronically, this can be accomplished on two or three slides. The presentations should be short, and students are encouraged to ask questions about their classmates’ data or analyses. Presentations can be evaluated using the sample rubric in Table 3. The students are using observations from the case to ask questions, explore the literature, and share data, findings, and ideas. Then they can look at the patterns that emerge. Students in every class in which we have used this activity have brought up climate change as a contributing factor.

Students may come up with explanations for why their data show that birds are arriving earlier, later, or at roughly the same time every year. That is perfectly acceptable: in science, trying to understand why a phenomenon happens is critical. What additional data or evidence would they need to support their explanations? Are those data available now, or would they need to conduct an experiment? It is important to emphasize that scientists collect data and continue to refine and modify explanations as more data emerge. This means that the students’ work does not have a final answer but can build scientific knowledge, or at least inspire revised or new hypotheses. Here is an opportunity to discuss cause and effect versus correlation, evidence for climate change, and how science works (NGSS Lead States, 2013; Understanding Science, 2014).

Table 3.

Rubric for assessing the students’ posters.

DataExplanationPresentationQuestion
5 Data are highly compelling Data are highly informative Data directly relate to the question Data table is complete, present, and appropriate Graph is appropriate and complete. Clearly links the data to the answer Refers to and uses all of the data in a convincing manner. Poster clearly conveys the research and understanding for the reader. Different colors are used to clarify the content. Language mechanics (grammar, spelling, and others) are all appropriate. Question is targeted, specific, and detailed. Question captures the main idea of the activity. 
4 Missing any 1 of the elements necessary for a 5. Accurate understanding of data to answer the question but there are minor errors or gaps. Poster is clear and conveys understanding. Colors may clarify content but some minor errors may be present. Question is targeted and relates to the main idea of the activity. 
3 Missing any 2 of the elements necessary for a 5. Makes statements that are weakly supported by data. Data may be used inappropriately. Poster is fairly clear but colors do not clarify or help to convey content. Language may be vague or ambiguous. Question is ambiguous and can be answered in a variety of ways. 
2 Missing any 3 of the elements necessary for a 5. The explanation, while complete, does not rely on the data provided. Poster is not clear with errors that make it difficult to follow. Simple “Yes/No” question. 
1 Only has one of the 5 elements necessary for a 5. Incomplete explanation or it does not make sense. Poster is difficult to understand and disorganized. Question is not relevant to the topic to be studied. 
DataExplanationPresentationQuestion
5 Data are highly compelling Data are highly informative Data directly relate to the question Data table is complete, present, and appropriate Graph is appropriate and complete. Clearly links the data to the answer Refers to and uses all of the data in a convincing manner. Poster clearly conveys the research and understanding for the reader. Different colors are used to clarify the content. Language mechanics (grammar, spelling, and others) are all appropriate. Question is targeted, specific, and detailed. Question captures the main idea of the activity. 
4 Missing any 1 of the elements necessary for a 5. Accurate understanding of data to answer the question but there are minor errors or gaps. Poster is clear and conveys understanding. Colors may clarify content but some minor errors may be present. Question is targeted and relates to the main idea of the activity. 
3 Missing any 2 of the elements necessary for a 5. Makes statements that are weakly supported by data. Data may be used inappropriately. Poster is fairly clear but colors do not clarify or help to convey content. Language may be vague or ambiguous. Question is ambiguous and can be answered in a variety of ways. 
2 Missing any 3 of the elements necessary for a 5. The explanation, while complete, does not rely on the data provided. Poster is not clear with errors that make it difficult to follow. Simple “Yes/No” question. 
1 Only has one of the 5 elements necessary for a 5. Incomplete explanation or it does not make sense. Poster is difficult to understand and disorganized. Question is not relevant to the topic to be studied. 

Extensions & Conclusions

Since climate change is likely to come up as a factor in changing bird migrations, here are some resources for further reading that your students may be interested in:

We recommend saving these articles until the end, since they give away the patterns we hope the students will discover themselves from the data. Articles such as these come up merely by doing a Google search of “bird migrations and climate change.” One could, as an assignment, ask students to find related articles to share with the class (along with a justification of why the web page used is a good source of scientific information).

From here, there are many possible directions – such as leading into a unit about human impact on the environment and climate change or, in our case, further study of what science is and how we find out about the natural world. While addressing the nature of science, this activity aligns with four Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Students are asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data, and using mathematics and computational thinking while obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

This activity also aligns with the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) (http://www.corestandards.org/Math/). Students use mathematical practice skills such as “Reason abstractly and quantitatively” and “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” and standards in the CCSSM domain of “Making Inferences and Justifying Conclusions.” Involving a math teacher could result in extending this activity further into the nature of science and mathematics and their relationship to each other.

Giving students the opportunity to work with real data allows them to construct a deeper understanding of science and explore ways of finding, collecting, and analyzing information. This demonstrates that science is about discovery and observations of the real world, not merely reading the past discoveries of others from textbooks.

Resources from Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Acknowledgments

This work grew out of a project that began at the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium’s 2012 Summer Workshop (http://www.bioquest.org). We thank Colleen McLinn and Ileana Betancourt from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whose presentations at the workshop on using eBird citizen-science data in the classroom inspired this module. Many thanks also to Ethel Stanley and Margaret Waterman for their guidance in developing and using investigative cases. This work was partially conducted at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, an institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through NSF award no. DBI-1300426, with additional support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

References

References
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Stanley, E. & Waterman, M. (2013). Using investigative cases. Northfield, MN: Science Education Resource Center at Carlton College. Available online at http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/icbl/index.html.
Sward, L.L. & Marcinkowski, T. (2005). Environmental sensitivity: a review of the research, 1980–1998. In H.R. Hungerford, W.J. Bluhm, T.L. Volk & J.M. Ramsey (Eds.), Essential Readings in Environmental Education, 3rd Ed. (pp. 301–312). Champaign, IL: Stipes.
Trautmann, N., Fee, J. & Kahler, P. (2012). Flying into inquiry: investigating local bird species through citizen science. Science Teacher, 79, 45–50.
Understanding Science. (2014). University of California Museum of Paleontology. http://www.understandingscience.org.