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This project brings together observation in the living world and data-collection.  
It provides ideas for a STEM club for up to half a term.
This would be a great project for a STEM club wanting to combine maths and science at school with observation which students can do in their own time. 

What does this project offer your club?

This project covers the STEM areas of maths and science without needing to be specifically categorised as either, helping students to integrate what they learn in lessons.

Possible approach

Get students to brainstorm what questions they are interested in finding out more about, and the kind of data they could collect.  Help them to decide on a small number of questions, for which they can find the data they need.

If you are not a science specialist ...

The RSPB website has numerous links with help for people who are new to bird-watching.  There are many different aspects that students could find out more about, such as:

  • Which birds are resident where you are in the summer, which in the winter, and where they go for the rest of the year?
  • What different birds eat, how they raise their young, what kinds of nests they build and where they build them?
  • Where do particular species fit in a food chain?
  • How do birds survive the winter, when they may need to find up to 40% of their body weight to last through a cold night?
  • Why some birds appear in the UK in much fewer numbers than was the case two or three decades ago?
  • What aspects of birds' anatomy help them to fly - including a high metabolic rate which supplies energy, lightweight bones, flight feathers specially adapted to help with flying, strength and skeletal support provided by the furcula or 'wishbone'?
  • How the mechanisms by which birds fly compare with the mechanisms by which planes fly
  • How do birds navigate and survive on long journeys of thousands of kilometres?

If you are not a maths specialist ...

Data needs to be collected for a purpose, and that should be discussed prior to collecting the data to ensure that the right data is collected in an efficient way.  So before you start the data collection, decide which questions you want to focus on, for instance:

  • How many different species of birds do we see in our school grounds in a week?
  • How many occurrences of certain species do we see in a week?

The first question simply requires each species observed to be noted once, while the second requires an initial decision on which species will be observed, then a count made of each.  Of course, there are other ways that a question could be framed to initiate the observation and data-collection, and students should be encouraged to discuss this and decide on something which will provide interesting data whilst being achievable on a practical level.

You may need to decide that observations will be done during a certain period of the day - say, the lunchbreak - rather than at any time of day.

Once the question to be answered has been decided, then students need to draft a form to record their data, and trial it to ensure that it is easy to use and does actually help them to record the data they want.

When you have your data, it should be entered into a spreadsheet for further work.  This might include graphs to display the data in some way, especially if you want to make comparisons with other data, such as that in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

You may also want to find an average, perhaps the average number of species observed on one day, or the average number of individual birds seen on one day.  Does it make more sense to use the mean (where you add up all the values and divide by the number of them), the median (the middle/central value) or the mode (the value which occurs most frequently)? 

The mean has the advantage of making use of all the data, but the disadvantage that it is skewed by extreme values.  The median has the advantage of being unaffected by extremem values, but doesn't make use of all the data.  The mode has the advantage of being easy to find and the only average you can find for non-numerical data (like species type), but may not tell you anything very interesting.

If you quote an average, it is also a good idea to quote the range of the values (this is the difference between the most extreme values) for numerical data or the number of different items observed in the case of non-numerical data.

Key questions

What do we want to find out?

How can we go about finding that out?

How are we going to record and display our data?  What does it tell us?

Other links

The background links to the RSPB 'big garden BIRDWATCH', the world's biggest birdwatch.

More ideas takes you to a site with several science fair projects on birds.

More advanced projects links to the project work from a Motivate conference 'Why Do Fish Swim and Birds Fly?' which focuses on analysing how birds, fish and animals move.

Read: science links to the science behind what the RSPB does.

Citizen scientists links to an article on Citizen Science projects, and how these contribute to monitoring and protecting species.