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Squirrely Behavior

Elementary, Middle


This teaching unit introduces students to the fascinating world of animal behaviour through the scientific investigation of squirrel activity in a natural habitat.  A series of in-class discussions and online tools are also used to support the outdoor exploration and data analysis components of the lesson.  This engaging and interactive resource provides students with the opportunity to:

  • Describe scientific methods used in animal research.
  • Observe and document the behaviour of an animal in its natural habitat.
  • Use data to create animal activity budgets.
  • Develop science inquiry skills.

General Assessment

What skills does this resource explicitly teach?

  • Wildlife observation
  • Inquiry
  • Critical thinking
  • Data collection and analysis


  • Actively engages students in meaningful scientific research.
  • Uses a Smithsonian Zoo scientist to introduce concepts.
  • Excellent background and support materials.
  • Well organized and easy to use.
  • Includes an outdoor investigation of a local habitat.


  • Does not link student research to habitat conservation with an action project.
  • Does not include a template for a final lab report which is an important component of any science investigation.

Recommendation of how and where to use it

This lesson offers an excellent approach to teaching students about the value of the scientific process while investigating a local wildlife species.  The initial experiment could be expanded by developing additional student research such as examining the behaviours of other species within the same habitat.  A class could even investigate the difference between innate and learned behaviours by creating an obstacle to food to be solved by the squirrels.

While conducting their research students should also be encouraged to observe the natural area from an ecosystem perspective.  Activities such as vegetation mapping or wildlife surveys would provide additional information about the ecological value of the space.  This information could support an action project that informs the local community about methods for creating backyard or urban wildlife habitat.

Relevant Curriculum Units

The following tool will allow you to explore the relevant curriculum matches for this resource. To start, select a province listed below.

Themes Addressed

Ecosystems (4)

  • Appreciating the Natural World
  • Biodiversity
  • Endangered Species
  • Wildlife Protection

Science and Technology (1)

  • Analysing Conventional Science

Sustainability Education Principles

Principle Rating Explanation
Consideration of Alternative Perspectives Good

The emphasis on scientific literacy reinforces student understanding that research should consider all variables and be as balanced as possible.

Consideration of Alternative Perspectives:
  • Satisfactory: absence of bias towards any one point of view
  • Good: students consider different points of view regarding issues, problems discussed
  • Very good: based on the consideration of different views, students form opinions and  take an informed position
Multiple Dimensions of Problems & Solutions Good

The use of an endangered species as the introduction to the topic of animal research teaches students that science plays a vital role in providing the information needed to support conservation objectives.  The strong connection between work at the Smithsonian Zoo and the lesson could also inspire some students to consider careers in the environmental sciences.

Multiple Dimensions of Problems & Solutions:

Effectively addresses the environmental, economic and social dimensions of the issue(s) being explored.

  • Satisfactory: resource supports the examination of  these dimensions
  • Good:  resource explicitly examines the interplay of these dimensions
  • Very Good:  a systems-thinking approach is encouraged to examine these three dimensions
Respects Complexity Good

This resource develops skills that support problem solving, analysis and inquiry.  Consequently, the learning experience encourages critical thinking and fosters new ideas.

Respects Complexity:

The complexity of the problems/issues being discussed is respected.

Acting on Learning Satisfactory

The use of an actual researcher to present information to students validates their learning and illustrates the relevance of new skills.  Students will recognize the environmental value of scientific research.

Acting on Learning:

Learning moves from understanding  issues  to working towards positive change — in personal lifestyle, in school, in the community,  or for the planet

  • Satisfactory: action opportunities are included as extensions 
  • Good: action opportunities are core components of the resource
  • Very Good: action opportunities for students are well supported and intended to result in observable, positive change
Values Education Satisfactory

The experimental approach of the unit develops an appreciation for the usefulness of the scientific process in answering questions.  Students also actively discuss their findings and consider each others viewpoints.

Values Education:

Students are explicitly provided with opportunities to identify, clarify and express their own beliefs/values.

Empathy & Respect for Humans Poor/Not considered
Empathy & Respect for Humans: Empathy and respect are fostered for diverse groups of humans (including different genders, ethnic groups, sexual preferences, etc.).
Personal Affinity with Earth Very Good

The behavioural observations of squirrels requires a quiet thoughtful interaction with a local habitat that will foster a closer connection to nature.

Personal Affinity with Earth:

Encourages a personal affinity with -the natural world.  

  • Satisfactory: connection is made to the natural world
  • Good: fosters appreciation/concern for the natural world
  • Very Good: fosters stewardship though practical and respectful experiences out-of-doors 
Locally-Focused Learning Good

Squirrels are an abundant, visible and recognizable wildlife species that provide a good model for behavioural analysis.  The research is also conducted in a local green space which will make the work more meaningful for students.

Locally-Focused Learning:

Includes learning experiences that take advantage of issues/elements within the local community. 

  • Satisfactory: learning is made relevant to the lives of the learners
  • Good: learning is made relevant and has a local focus
  • Very Good: learning is made relevant, local and takes place ‘outside’ , in the community 
Past, Present & Future Satisfactory

Upon the completion of their experiment students are asked to reflect on questions arising from their data.  These reflections could be the basis of future class studies of this topic.

Past, Present & Future: Promotes an understanding of the past, a sense of the present, and a positive vision for the future.

Pedagogical Approaches

Principle Rating Explanation
Open-Ended Instruction Good

The inquiry approach of this unit provides students with the opportunity to observe, collect data and draw conclusions.

Open-Ended Instruction :

Lessons are structured so that multiple/complex answers are possible; students are not steered toward one 'right' answer.

Integrated Learning Satisfactory

Although this is primarily a science-based project, the data input and pie chart activity support math outcomes related to data management and statistics.

Integrated Learning:

Learning brings together content and skills  from more than one  subject area

  • Satisfactory: content from a number of different  subject areas is readily identifiable
  • Good:  resource is appropriate for use in more than one subject area
  • Very Good:  the lines between subjects are blurred 
Inquiry Learning Good

The outdoor observation provides an opportunity for students to engage with nature at a level that inspires curiosity.  The lessons also develop skills such as peer to peer dialogue that support knowledge sharing and the synthesis of new ideas.

Inquiry Learning:

Learning is directed by questions, problems, or challenges that students work to address.   

  • Satisfactory: Students are provided with questions/problems to solve and some direction on how to arrive at solutions.
  • Good: students, assisted by the teacher clarify the question(s) to ask and the process to follow to arrive at solutions.  Sometimes referred to as Guided Inquiry
  • Very Good:  students generate the questions and assume much of the responsibility for how to solve them.  . Sometimes referred to as self-directed learning.


Differentiated Instruction Satisfactory

There are no specific strategies identified but the overall design of the unit supports differentiation.  Audio-visual materials  are used to complement the text.  The online data analysis tool assists students who struggle with a conventional math approach.  The outdoor experience will appeal to a wide range of learners.  The resource also provides blank worksheets for those students who want to expand beyond the initial investigation and create their own research project.

Differentiated Instruction:

Activities address a range of student learning styles, abilities and readiness.

  • Satisfactory:  includes a variety of instructional approaches
  • Good: addresses  the needs of visual, auditory &  kinesthetic learners
  • Very Good: also includes strategies for learners with difficulties
Experiential Learning Good

Students are engaged in all aspects of their research and the support materials replicate authentic science practices, thus providing a realistic learning experience.

Experiential Learning:

Authentic learning experiences are provided

  • Satisfactory: learning takes place through ‘hands-on’ experience or simulation
  • Good: learning involves direct experience in a ‘real world context’
  • Very good: learning involves ‘real world experiences’ taking place’ beyond the school walls.
Cooperative Learning Satisfactory

Pairs of students are required to use communication skills while they conduct their field observations.  Class data is pooled and discussed as a group.

Cooperative Learning:

Group and cooperative learning strategies are a priority.

  • Satisfactory:  students work in groups
  • Good: cooperative learning skills are explicitly taught and practiced
  • Very Good: cooperative learning skills are explicitly taught, practiced and assessed
Assessment & Evaluation Satisfactory

The "Building Background Knowledge" worksheet provides a good formative assessment tool since it requires student reflection about the learning outcomes of the lesson.  The data sheets and graphs could be used for summative assessment as part of a laboratory report.

Assessment & Evaluation: Tools are provided that help students and teachers to capture formative and summative information about students' learning and performance. These tools may include reflection questions, checklists, rubrics, etc.
Peer Teaching Satisfactory

Working in pairs to complete the squirrel observations should involve constant peer to peer interaction since the individual tasks are dependant on each other.  Students also present their research findings when the class data is consolidated and discussed.

Peer Teaching:

Provides opportunities for students to actively present their knowledge and skills to peers and/or act as teachers and mentors.

  • Satisfactory: incidental teaching that arises from cooperative learning, presentations, etc.
  • Good or Very Good: an opportunity is intentionally created to empower students to teach other students/community members. The audience is somehow reliant on the students' teaching (students are not simply ‘presenting')
Case Studies Good

Students immediately learn the value of their own research by observing a similar behaviour study being conducted on the endangered Golden Lion Tamarin at the Smithsonian National Zoo.  The video provides tangible evidence that wildlife research has important real-world applications.

Case Studies:

Relevant case studies are included.  Case studies are thorough descriptions of real events from real situations that students use to explore  concepts in an authentic context.

Locus of Control Satisfactory

Groups are able to plan and discuss their research question with minimal guidance from the teacher.  The instructions for data collection are very specific but the actual investigation does involve some choices like which animal to observe or the location of the observations.

Locus of Control: Meaningful opportunities are provided for students to choose elements of program content, the medium in which they wish to work, and/or to go deeper into a chosen issue.