Students in my biology classes are always interested in sense organs and perception. The facts that butterflies taste with their feet and most mammals see only black and white fascinate them. What would it be like if we humans were like bats and used echolocation to find our food? Can a newborn see her mother’s face? Do whales talk to each other? Do all people see things in the same way?
Why does the subject of perception provoke so many questions? Perhaps it’s because we humans are so visually oriented that we forget that animals often depend on other senses for survival. For instance, a male gypsy moth can detect the scent of a female who is more than 1/2 mile away; a bat locates moths at night by aiming waves of high frequency sound; and a cockroach disappears in a flash if air currents disturb the feelers on its abdomen. By studying the sense organs of various animals we can extend the limits of our own concept of reality.
This five to six week unit is designed for high school classes, but with slight modifications it would also be suitable for middle school.
This is both a science unit and a writing unit. My premise is that if students get “hooked on science” they will be willing to write about their observations and experiments, especially if they can build up their vocabulary gradually. Writing is the most important skill a student can learn in school but traditionally we have not done too much of it in science classes. The kind of writing assignments I would like to see emphasized in my biology class are daily writings based on the activities and discussions of the day. What I have done up to now is to assign copious worksheets and an occasional report. Although the worksheets are welcomed by many students, the brightest ones are not very stimulated by them. Doing the reports is always good but I have often had the feeling that I should build up to them more gradually so that students would feel more confident about using their own words instead of copying the encyclopedia.
This unit on perception and sense organs emphasizes daily writing assignments based on the activities the class has done that day. Students may complain that this is NOT an English class but once they get used to the daily writing rhythm and their scientific vocabulary starts to build up, their confidence will too, and the going will be easier.
Writing should start casually, as a group activity, with the emphasis on just words at first. There should always be a discussion before the actual writing. Gradually longer pieces can be attempted, in class if possible, culminating finally in a short research report. The important thing is that students get practice in writing every day.
It would also be useful if the students could get used to reading their writings out loud either to another student or to you, the teacher. This feedback will help them improve the clarity of their writing as well as correcting mistakes.
When we science teachers do teach writing, how much grammar should we emphasize? I personally don’t think that we should give regular lessons in grammar (
I would prefer leaving to the English teachers). There are two things that I would emphasize in scientific writing: correct use of scientific vocabulary and logical thinking. That is, did the student stick to the subject and did she argue convincingly using facts learned in class?
The other aim of this unit, of course, is to learn some science in particular, perception and senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell. (Taste will not be covered). Students should, as much as possible, obtain their information in the same way as scientists by observations and open ended experiments, and then use these results in their writings. The nice thing about teaching science is that so many students are careful observers and really inventive experimenters, and that these skills have little to do with intelligence or writing abilities. Everyone has something to offer when results are discussed. It’s important that students feel like scientists and learn to be critical, to question authority and to try new approaches. (One student I had last year always signed her lab reports, Jane Smith, SCIENTIST, when she felt particularly inventive.)