Hands-On Learning on the Mountain

January 11, 2016

Teaching assistants Allison Cornell and Raime Fronstin were wondering how to spice up tutorials for first year biology students with hands-on activities that would give them a taste of real-life research. Not an easy exercise when dealing with limited funds, class time and students new to the rigors of data collection and experimental design. Using ingenuity and creativity, Cornell and Fronstin came up with a project that met their goals and produced some interesting results.

The Camera Trap project was designed to showcase Burnaby Mountain’s unique ecological landscape and reinforce how ecology and animal behavior intersect on campus trails.  Students set 11 motion sensitive cameras throughout SFU’s trails in an effort to gain data that would support their hypothesis.

Cornell says, “The other goal was to show students how to develop their own hypotheses and carry out the work. Usually hypotheses are given to students, but in this case, we wanted them to come up with whatever hypothesis interested them and to figure out the challenges of testing their ideas”.  Students attempted to answer questions such as: Is wildlife more prevalent around sources of water? and are there more animals on forest paths situated further from roads?

Dismantling the cameras at the end of the 6-week experiment was both disappointing and exciting. Four of the cameras, worth about $200 each, had been stolen and with them, of course, the data they collected. While the theft may preclude future students from conducting this particular experiment, Cornell used it as a teachable moment. “You have to expect the unexpected when you’re working in nature, and not in a lab setting. That’s a part of doing science and makes it challenging.”

The interesting news arrived in photos showing a bobcat, a rare sighting.  In fact, the bobcat sighting was so unique that Cornell was approached by a UBC scientist seeking permission to include their data in his research into the effect of climate change on the range of bobcats and lynx.

Student Hussein Hagehassan is in his first year at SFU and hoping to major in Biology.  “I can firmly say that BISC 102 was my favorite class this semester, both lectures and tutorials were always full of new and exciting information that further enhanced the love I have for Biology.” Regarding the Camera Trap experiment, Hagehassan says, “I took the opportunity to familiarize myself with SFU's trails as well as gain experience in beginner field work. I would highly recommend this course to any student as it does a great job introducing the wide array of branches biology can lead to.”

BISC 102 instructor Professor Isabelle Côté is equally enthusiastic about the experiment.  “The Camera Trap project is a great example of what happens when creativity and opportunity collide.   Allison and Raime figured these cameras would be fun data collection tools for their first-year Introduction to Biology students.  The students learned to formulate questions and the basics of experimental design (where to put the cameras to collect the right kind of data) and data analysis.”

Both TAs are pleased that their “hypothesis” that hands-on learning is more engaging was correct. Cornell says, “The experience was positive. Value can be added to education if students get to do something hands-on and practical, but coming up with their own ideas really increased ownership and motivation. They seemed more engaged and excited to see their results”.

TA Raime Fronstin and student Bobbianne Riches in the field.

BISC 102 Student Hussein Hagehassan setting up along SFU's trails.