What the Cat-Cucumber Video Taught Me About How We Teach Biology in Schools

I had an eye opening experience in biology class the other day. The students were given a current event assignment in which they had to use their Chromebooks to find an article of interest, read it, and then answer a series of questions about the article. The only requirements were that the article had to have some substance (more than just a few paragraphs), it had to be related to biology, and it had to come from one of about six websites that we specified (e.g., New Scientist, Scientific American, Science Daily, National Geographic, etc. – no googling questionable material!).

Most of the questions were pretty standard and should have been easy to answer. For example, we asked them to summarize the main points of the article and discuss why it was important. However, the one question we asked that kept tripping the students up was “How does the article relate to biology?

We started off the school year by defining what Biology is – the study of life. We discussed the factors that make something “alive.” I thought the students had a decent grasp of the broad nature of the field of biology. But it became apparent to me that something hadn’t connected when I was asked how an article about overhunting of elephants related to biology. How migraines relate to biology? How an article about the effects of drought on trees relates to biology?

Several students read an article about the cat-cucumber video that has been making the rounds of the internet lately. Check it out below:

The article talked about how scaring a cat can create unnecessary stress (neurobiology and endocrine physiology!), and that that the cats might be scared of cucumbers because they mistake them for snakes (predator-prey relationships!). We discussed these topics, and I wound up showing the cat video to the next two classes. We discussed its relation to biology as a group, and it was a great jumping-off point to talk about how broad the field of biology really is.

What this experience really made me realize is that our normal progression through biology, one that I have taught many times in the past, and one that is very much linked to progressions from textbooks and science standards, really emphasizes cellular and molecular biology, especially at the beginning of the year. This seems to make students equate biology with little things that they cannot see, and they lose sight of the fact that biology encompasses things like their own body and health, human and animal behavior, and the relationships among organisms in the world around them. Often, these are the topics of most interest to 15 year olds in their first high school biology course, and we don’t cover most of them until the end of the school year (or they don’t get covered at all).

All of this has made me start to think about whether there is a better way to teach biology and engage  young students who may not be all that familiar with how things they see and do every day fit within the science of life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether there is a better way to do thing, and I’d love to here if any of you have addressed this topic in your own classrooms. Is there a better way to teach biology than the standard progression from molecules to ecosystems?

About Peter Larson

I'm a recovering academic, current high school biology/zoology teacher, blogger, and science geek with diverse interests (and experience) in the areas of zoology, anatomy, evolutionary biology, developmental biology, and exercise science. I made the fairly unusual jump from higher ed (10 years, including tenure, as a college biology professor) to teaching high school biology at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in Northwood, NH. In addition to being a dedicated teacher, I'm also an avid distance runner - I write about running at Runblogger.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google+.