Are your students mad about science, or are you breaking all of the beakers in your lab in search of a challenging activity? Until recently, I was the latter, frustrated and looking for ways to reintroduce some curriculum staples. We were beginning our unit on habitats and ecosystems, which I’ve discovered is the least popular topic amongst my students. After some exhaustive searching, I turned to my close friend and colleague, Jeri Baer, for advice. I knew that as a science guru, she would be able to guide me in the right direction, and sure enough, Jeri reminded me of a lab that we had co-taught years ago. The “Owl Pellet Lab” had been widely successful and was just the spark I was looking for. Read on for a great lab that will foster active engagement and a renewed love for science.
Owls usually swallow their food whole, digest the edible parts, then regurgitate the inedible pieces in the form of pellets. These owl pellets are masses of bone, teeth, hair, feathers, and exoskeletons of various animals. They are also considered ecosystems in themselves, as they provide food and shelter for neighboring animal communities. Although owl pellets may be unappetizing to adults, most middle school kids will find that they are right up their alley! However, teachers should note that although most pellet kits are sterilized, some may still harbor bacteria, and therefore students should use latex gloves and never place the pellets near their mouths.
1. After providing an overview of the lab, I posted the "Owl Pellet Bone Chart" on the board and passed out the "Owl Pellet Dissection" instructions for students to review. I reminded them that, since owls eat several different animals before regurgitating them, a wide array of bones would be found.
2. Each student received a pellet, foam board, and tweezers with the goal of delicately separating the feathers from the potential bones inside. Once all of the bones had been carefully laid out, students could then go up to the chart and compare them. I loved seeing everyone so actively engaged and displaying so much conscientious behavior. Several of the kids were amazed to find multiple skulls or teeth, which they delicately laid out in individual piles for labeling.
3. After they finished identifying and classifying the bones, they began the process of reconstructing their animal, making detailed observations in their worksheet packets. I was especially proud of my students who struggle with attention problems, as they diligently remained on task and retained focus throughout the lesson. I also was pleasantly surprised to see the unique creations my students came up with independent of the lesson. It was great to see the assignment evolve through student suggestions.
4. Once the reconstruction process concluded, each student was given a colored piece of card stock on which to write a creative essay describing their findings. Specifically, they needed to include a hypothesis about their animal's eating habits, how it survived in its habitat, and the manner in which the animal met its demise. I was stunned by the high level of work produced, and almost everyone asked if they could do a second “dissection”!
Overall, I found this lesson to be an ideal way to incorporate hands-on learning and critical thinking skills. Moreover, my class enjoyed every minute and are anxiously awaiting our next science endeavor!