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Knowing your own: A classroom case study using the scientific method to investigate how birds learn to recognize their offspring

Understanding the scientific method provides students with a necessary foundation for careers in science-related fields. Moreover, students can apply scientific inquiry skills in many aspects of their daily lives and decision making. Thus, the ability to apply the scientific method represents an essential skill that students should learn during undergraduate science education. We designed an interrupted case study in which students learn about and apply the scientific method to investigate and recapitulate the findings of a published research article. This research article addresses the question of how parents recognize their own young in a system where birds of the same species lay eggs in each other's nests. The researchers approach the question through three experiments in which the bird's own offspring and unrelated offspring hatch in different orders. This experiment specifically tests for the effect of hatching order on the bird's ability to recognize its own offspring. In the case study, students form hypotheses based on behavioral observations made while watching a video clip, together with background information provided by the instructor. With additional information about the experimental design, students make graphical predictions for the three related experiments, compare their predictions to the results, and draw conclusions based on evidence. This lesson is designed for introductory undergraduate students, and we provide suggestions on how to adjust the lesson for more advanced students. This case study helps students differentiate between hypotheses and predictions, introduces them to constructing and interpreting graphs, and provides a clear example of the scientific method in action.

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Kevin Law