Monday, May 16, 2011

What have we been up to this year? Lizards (and an innovative way to teach kids to think and act like scientists)! A recap of The Lizard Project.

This year we tried to do something that is rarely done in high school science classrooms. We did science! With the help of the National Science Foundation and our friends Dr. Fred Janzen and Dr. Dan Warner at Iowa State University, we conducted research in ecology and evolution at the level of rigor practiced by professional scientists. Our research aimed to answer the basic questions of: "For animals that lay eggs, how do mothers choose nesting sites?" and "What effect does that choice have on the physical traits of her offspring?". We used 80 brown anole lizards in 20 different enclosures (although our project grew as babies hatched!) for our experiments and throughout the project we emphasized that our questions are questions to which no one (not even an expert evolutionary biologist) has the answers to for our study species. These are the kinds of questions which working scientists work to answer.

We used the entire experiment as the framework for learning the scientific method. Students identified a hypothesis and variables in the experiment. In our first experiment, we presented the female lizards (who were housed with males to ensure eggs) with choices in the types of locations available to lay their eggs. We presented the moms-to-be with five carefully measured levels of soil moisture, both with and without plants.
Then once a week, the students in my five classes carefully sifted through all of the soil to search for jelly bean sized eggs and record the choices that the females had made as well as the mass of each egg.

For our second experiment, each egg that was found was assigned to soil with a randomly chosen moisture content. The moisture content for the soils in the incubator were the same as the five moisture choices the females had in their cages. This allowed us to collect data on how the choices the mother made (and didn't make) could have affected her offspring. Once the lizards were hatched (they are about thumbnail sized and cute as can be) we measured their size and growth carefully to see if its incubation conditions had an effect on its physical attributes.

This was a powerful learning experience for me and my students. My students and I produced products at different levels to show our learning and communicate our findings. My sophomore biology students produced lab reports, my senior zoology students produced papers in the format of a peer reviewed scientific journal and I am currently working on a paper for publication in a peer reviewed journal.

We are looking forward to producing a movie for classroom use with footage from the the lizards' wild habitat and in the classroom to share our experiences and give teachers and students exciting material to teach and learn the scientific method and data analysis. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading to learn about The Lizard Project in the field in the estuary ecosystems of central Florida.