Ever the Ethologist - Part I

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SWBAT describe the role of an ethologist.

Big Idea

Observation is a critical element in the scientific process. This activity familiarizes students with the process of observing and recording animal behavior and how to use collected data to make informed inferences from the data collected.


15 minutes

This portion of the lesson is adapted from the ReadWriteThink lesson, "Webcams in the Classroom:Animal Inquiry and Observation".

I introduce the activity and gain student interest by displaying an animal webcam from Annenberg's Explore website on the projector as the students enter class. I allow them 3-4 minutes to view the webcam and make/share observations. I start a conversation, asking students to explain what they see on the webcam display, such as:

  • What is the animal doing?
  • What do you notice about the animal's habitat?
  • What can you tell me about the animal’s appearance and behavior?
  • How does the animal move?
  • How does the animal interact with others?

As students make observations and share their thoughts, I take notes on the board.

Next, I write the terms "ethology" and "ethologist" on the board, explaining that we will learn about what it means to be an ethologist today. I pass out index cards, and ask the students to look up the meaning. Once they find the definitions, I have them write it on the card, and sketch a simple illustration that might depict what an ethologist looks like. I ask volunteers to share their images under the doc cam, and also encourage students to share examples of real-life ethologists they have seen or heard about. These mini-activities all help to build background knowledge and set the stage for the lesson.


25 minutes

I direct the students to the Jane Goodall website and have them read about Dame Goodall, one of the first and best known ethologists. Not only will this educate the students in the work of ethologists, as well as may provide connections or activate prior knowledge for some of the students who may have heard of her. Many may not know her by name, but may have seen her work with primates on television or online.

I have them pay special attention to the pages titled "All About Jane", "Gombe Timeline", and "Scientific Discoveries", taking notes as they read. After reading through the site, I show the video below. Students continue to take notes as they watch.


By now, students have a comprehensive picture of the life and work of Dame Goodall, and have probably become pretty interested in the field of ethology. This really helps to spark excitement and interest in the activities to come in the next few days!


30 minutes

Once we have watched the video, the students summarize the life and efforts of Jane Goodall, either in a well written 2-3 paragraph summary (for higher performing or more capable students), or in complete sentences using a graphic organizer (for students who need more writing support, or just to save time).

Elaborate (Day 2)

60 minutes

Now that students are familiar with the work of one famous ethologist, it is time to study the field a little deeper.  Students will select an ethologist from the provided list and conduct some research to learn more about their scientific contributions. They will use the Biography Poster Printable, created by Scholastic. This portion of the lesson will take time, as I require that effort be put into the posters and that every student demonstrate quality work (complete sentences, colored illustrations, correct grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc.)

 Suggested Ethologists for study:

  • Dian Fossey 
  • Konrad Lorenz
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • Karl von Frisch
  • Sarah Hrdy
  • Martin Moynihan
  • Patricia McConnell
  • Erich Klinghammer
  • Frans de Waal
  • Oskar Heinroth
  • Marc Bekoff
  • Barbara B. Smuts
  • Kevin Richardson
  • Irene Maxine Pepperberg


10 minutes

After everyone has finished their poster, I have the students form Inside, Outside Circles so that they can share their work. With each round, I call attention to a particular section on their poster, and students summarize their thinking, sharing their work with their circle partner.  It's a great way to assess my students because I have the chance to hear all of them working with the content and see the quality of their work simultaneously, simply by walking around the circumference of the outside circle!