Ever the Ethologist - Part II

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SWBAT conduct observations, record data, and hypothesize about natural animal behavior based on their observational data.

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.


5 minutes

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

I begin today's activity just as I did two days before, displaying an animal webcam from the Explore website on the projector as the students enter class. I allow them 3-4 minutes to view the webcam and make/share observations. Since we have discussed the role of ethologists and their purposes for observing, I elicit deeper thinking from my students as they observe than I did last time, asking questions such as:

  • How does the animal interact with others?
  • Why do you think the animal is behaving this way?
  • What do you notice when you look closely at the images?
  • What might a scientist notice about this animal?
  • What do you think the animal might do next?
  • What have you learned by watching the animal?
  • What conclusion can be made about the animal’s behavior from your observations?

As they make observations and share their thoughts, I again take notes on the board. After we have spent several minutes observing and recording observations, I explain to the students that they will have the chance to become ethologists as they observe and study a species of their choosing over the next few days. They will use the data they record to learn more about the species and their behavioral patterns, as well as the reasons why animals behave the way they do.


30 minutes

I explain to the class that in order for ethologists to properly observe and log their data, they use a document called an "ethogram" to record and organize their observations. I show them an example of an ethogram from the Ethosearch website and briefly explain how to use it.

I want to give my students some practice using the form to collect their observations, so I pass out hard copies of a General Ethogram Data Sheet and an animal webcam from Explore, which is a rich resource provided by Annenberg. I purposely selected the Puffin Burrow in Seal Island, ME, because it shows a mother puffin caring for her young.*

The ethogram document calls for students to record observations and make notes every thirty seconds. If you prefer to set these farther apart, you can create and/or edit your own ethogram on the site. I like to make this experience as authentic as possible, so I keep the 30 second time frame. However, to get that started, I allow the students about 60 seconds to observe the camera uninterrupted, then pausing the video and allowing additional time to complete the first observation entry. After that, I try to stick to thirty second intervals, keeping the camera going as they take notes, to simulate a natural situation as an ethologist.

*NOTE: Please note the Puffin webcam stream is NOT currently live, due to the season. I selected a prerecorded stream instead, so that I could watch it beforehand. This way, I know there are plenty of behaviors on the stream for my students to observe and record. When your students are making their own observations, they must use a LIVE cam from the site. Using a recorded stream will result in them seeing the same videos for all three observations, which means they will not have original behaviors to view. It skews their data and it is not half as much fun!


10 minutes

Once we have watched the first 5 minutes of the video and taken notes on the ethogram, I stop the video and have students share their notes with their table groups. After providing a few minutes to share, I randomly select 1-2 observers to share what they wrote at each 30 second interval. We compare our observations as a class. I want the students to see that not everyone will make the same exact observation, depending on which animal they were watching and what they were able to catch when they weren't writing. However, they should also be able to see that when we combine our notes, we have a pretty comprehensive picture of what was going on during that period of time. This supports the idea that scientists must collaborate and communicate their findings, which we have discussed in the prior unit.

If the students desire, I allow them to add information to their entries after the class discussion. For example, they may realize a detail that they failed to include and want to add. In order to encourage student ownership of the document and the process, I do not make any kind of revision requirements; I allow students themselves to make these decisions.

Once students are satisfied with their notes, I have them complete an Animal Webcam Observation Summary (created by ReadWriteThink). This provides an overview of what was observed and requires students to make a few inferences as to what they noticed during their viewing.

Elaborate (Days 2-4)

10 minutes

Now that students are comfortable in the observation process and using an ethogram, I have them select an animal from one of the resources below to observe on their own. I explain that we will conduct observations on these animals once per day for three days, but they are also welcome to observe the animals at home or on their own time. The students download and complete an ethogram document every time they observe and view for a minimum of 5 minutes. Also, they may add more pages to their document for additional 30 second intervals. 

Before starting their observation, I have them craft questions** that they would like to answer about this animal as a result of observing it in its habitat, such as:

  • Who cares more for their young - mothers or fathers?
  • Is my animal more active during the day or at night?
  • Is my animal naturally social reclusive?
  • How does my animal attract a mate?
  • How do changes in the weather (sun versus rain), different times of day, interaction with others (animals vs.humans), or different activities the animals engage in (eating, playing, and so forth) affect the mood and/or behavior of my animal?


I provide a few example questions, but encourage students to craft their own, based on what they're interested in and what they want to know. I read through each student question, helping them to refine as necessary. Once we come to an agreement about a suitable question, I remind them that their goal will be to answer this question at the end of our observations. Then, I set them to work observing their animal!

Recommended Webcam sites:

If students are not able to see much on the webcam they have chosen, or if they are seeing the same behaviors during each session, I DO NOT let them select a different animal. Rather, I challenge them to think about why they may be seeing the same behaviors, or no behaviors at all (ex: same time of day, season, etc). I also encourage students to consider other webcams as resources.  Observations of these different webcams can lead to more inquiry, exploration, and analysis.

**Student questions should be crafted so that they can be answered through a combination or observation and research. They should NOT be able to be answered with a one word or one sentence response.

Elaborate (Days 5-6)

40 minutes

Once the students have completed all of their observations, it is time for them to compile and analyze their data. They being by completing the Species Activity Summary, which helps them to see how their animal spent the majority of their time during the periods of observation. (It also integrates data analysis and math skills into the activity.)

Next, they complete their Animal Webcam Observation Summary, which provides a more summative snapshot of their data and allows them to make inferences based on what they observed. This document is very useful, because it requires students to summarize and use scientific vocabulary, but provides enough scaffolding to support any learner, provided they can write complete sentences.

Finally, students write a 2-3 paragraph summary that answers the question they originally crafted, based on both their observations and further research that they conduct on their animal.


5 minutes

Students' engagement in these inquiry-based observations will be documented in their ethogram entries, class discussion, and their engagement in additional research in books and other nonfiction resources. A basic checklist of questions can focus assessment of the activity:

  • Do students look closely at live events? Are they engaged in the observation?
  • Do students write notes about what they see (make factual observations)?
  • Do students share and present their observations to the class?
  • Do students work as scientists in the classroom, questioning and testing their observations and resources?
  • Do students question the "facts" of their observations and explore the possible conclusions they lead to?
  • Do students consult other nonfiction resources for additional information about their research? How do they work with these resources?

I gain a great deal of formative assessment data on my students based on their participation and progression throughout the unit. I am also able to gleam their progress on a summative level as a result of the work they have produced on the final day/s.