Researcher for a day: What kinds of animals live in the Amazon?

posted by Lindsay Maldonado

By day, I’m a researcher at Shedd Aquarium. I study people though, not animals – but, at Shedd, there are also a lot of people who do study animals. Some of these people are conservation research scientists or aquarists, who use math, and science, to help them learn more about the animals in their care, or animals in the wild. No matter who, or what, your subjects are, collecting data helps researchers collect information (i.e., data) that can provide answers to important research questions. For example, I might want to know how many visitors learned something about how they can help animals after their visit; or a conservation researcher might want to know how many seahorses live in a certain area of the world. So, to get us started, let’s pretend we are research scientists. We have our clipboard loaded up with our data collection sheet, some pencils, and our observation eyes. Now we’re ready to start collecting data!

penguin survey

Data analysis is one of the big ideas of early mathematics and can serve as a foundation for introducing other big ideas like sets, number sense, and counting — and, what better place to apply these ideas than at the aquarium with real living animals.

We have some important research questions to answer, so let’s get back into scientist mode. Today we want to know how many different animals live in the River Channel – and, we’re going to answer this question by observing animals (i.e., gathering data) and documenting what we see (i.e., organizing and describing data). These are all important steps to data analysis! If we want to know what animals live in the River Channel, we first need to make some observations. What do you see? A variety of animals live in the River Channel. How many animals do you see? Can you count them? I see 8 animals.

how many animals

Like the Amazon River, this habitat shows the diversity of animals that live in the river. What kind of animals do you see? I see turtles, stingrays, and fish.

kinds of animalsWe can sort the animals in the River Channel in a number of ways. First, we can sort by the attribute: type of animal. There are fish, turtles, and stingrays. Let’s put these animals on our graph. Representing data, in this way, is an important part of data analysis and allows us to interpret the data we collected.

blank graph

Let’s revisit our research question. We want to know how many types of animals live in the Amazon River. Through observation, we saw that fish, turtles, and stingrays live in the Amazon River so there are three types of animals in the River Channel. But how many of each live there? Let’s use our graph to help us organize our data. How many fish do you see? How many turtles? How many stingrays?

animals on graph

In what other ways can you sort these animals? You can use any number of attributes to sort the animals in this picture. We used the attribute of type (turtles, stingrays, and fish) but you could also sort these animals by size or shape. Observing animals at an aquarium is full of math possibilities. You can use data collection and data representation as the foundation for exploring the big ideas of early math. Keep exploring data analysis in the classroom. Try more data activities here.

Another Estimation Activity

On Monday, I wrote about a really interesting estimation activity that one of my students worked on in her student teaching classroom.  Today, I want to show you another estimation activity that is an example of what I see much more frequently.

For this activity, the teacher put marbles in a large glass vase.  The children each then had a turn to “estimate” how many marbles were in the jar.  Seems simple enough.  However, let’s take a look at how this differs from Monday’s example and why these distinctions are important. IMG_0145

The first thing to notice that even as an adult, you couldn’t possible estimate how many marbles are in the vase.  It really wouldn’t even be an estimate as much as it would be a guess, and a pretty random one at that.  The smaller jars with fewer items makes far more sense for young children.  Most three and four years olds can’t even imagine what 45 or 70 marbles look like since they probably haven’t developed a solid sense of number that big.  And remember, just because children can count to 45 does not mean they have any concept of what 45 is.

Each child had an opportunity to write their name and their guess on a large graph that the teacher hung in the classroom.

I love that the children wrote their names and their numbers but you can see that their “estimates” are not even close.  This takes us back to the original intention of the activity.  If the learning outcome for the children was to write their names and a number then the learning outcome was met. If the learning outcome was about estimation, I am not so sure.

The teacher wrote the word “Predictions” on top of the first column.  Was this a prediction activity?  A prediction is a guess about the future, so this language is not quite correct.  We want to be sure to use exact and correct language with children all of the time.  This is especially true when we design an activity and the results of that activity will be a part of the classroom over time.  Having this graph up in the classroom may reinforce misunderstandings about what a prediction is, and it doesn’t say anything about estimation.