Hands-on research experiences are important opportunities for students to learn about the nature of inquiry and gain confidence in solving problems. Here, we present an inquiry-based lesson plan that investigates the foraging behavior of sciurid rodents (squirrels) in local habitats. Squirrels are an ideal study system for student research projects because many species are diurnal, easy to watch, and inhabit a range of habitats including college campuses. In this activity, instructors identify appropriate field sites and focal species, while students generate questions and brainstorm predictions in small groups regarding factors that might influence behavioral trade-offs in sciurids. Students conduct observational surveys of local squirrels in pairs using a standardized protocol and upload their data to a national database as part of the multi-institutional Squirrel-Net (http://squirrel-net.org). Instructors access the nationwide dataset through the Squirrel-Net website and provide students with data for independent analysis. Students across the country observe and record a range of squirrel species, including behaviors and habitat characteristics. The national dataset can be used to answer student questions about why squirrels behave in the way they do and for students to learn about authentic analyses regarding behavior trade-offs. Additionally, the lesson is designed to be modified across a range of inquiry levels, from a single two-hour laboratory activity to a unit- or semester-long student-driven course-based research experience. Our activity highlights the value of using observational data to conduct research, makes use of the Squirrel-Net infrastructure for collaboration, and provides students equitable access to field-based projects with small mammals.
Connors, Patrice K.; Varner, Johanna; Erb, Liesl P.; Dizney, Laurie; Lanier, Hayley C.; Hanson, John D.; Yahnke, Christopher J.; Duggan, Jennifer M.; and Flaherty, Elizabeth A., "Squirreling Around for Science: Observing Sciurid Rodents to Investigate Animal Behavior" (2020). AES Faculty Publications and Presentations. 9.