Anybody can teach science: Can you move an animal without touching it?

Teach science while working with animals—it is that easy!

You do not need all the answers to teach science—you simply need an inquisitive mind and be willing to carry out an investigation. You can teach science, even when you don’t know diddly-squat! The following is a simple experiment you can try while working with any animal. The purpose is not to teach specific content, but to teach the process of science: asking questions and discovering answers. This activity is to encourage young people to try to figure things out for themselves rather than just read an answer on the internet or in a book.

Can you move an animal without touching it?

This activity can be done in 20 minutes or multiple days, depending on the interest and questions the youth have. Materials needed are a pencil and paper, tape measure, any domesticated animal (gerbil, cat, dog, chicken, sheep, horse) and an enclosed area appropriate for your animal (dirt floor is preferable). Make sure the enclosed area is an appropriate size for the animal (a horse will need more space than a dog, which would need more space than a gerbil).

Important note: Depending on the animal and how used to humans it is, you should have a plan to quickly move a safe distance away from the animal should it become agitated, overly excited or fearful. Most animals that have been around humans should behave normally, but if there is a very large or noisy group, this could impact animal behavior.

Use Science and Engineering Practices to engage youth in the experiment. These are connected to in-school science standards that all children must meet.

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigation
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Asking questions and defining problems

Can you control how an animal moves without touching it? Do animals move a certain way in response to a human presence? Can where you stand cause them to move forwards or backwards? Does an animal’s body language give you an idea of where it is going?

Planning and carrying out investigations

Have youth stand far away from the animal. Ask them to be observers. What things are important to observe? Do you think the animal’s eyes, ears, feet and tail might give clues as to when they will begin to move? Do you think it would be better for everyone to observe the entire animal, or give each person a particular thing to watch for?

Have one person approach the animal and the rest observe. How close can you get before the animal moves? How does it move away from you—fast, slow or medium speed? Where is the animal looking while it moves away from you? What else do you notice about the animal’s body language? What are its ears, hair/fur, tail, nose and backside doing? Does an animal always move away from you? If not, how close can you be before it starts to move towards you? How does it move towards you—fast, slow or medium speed? If you are on a dirt floor, use the tape measure to record this by measuring to a footprint. If you have a hard floor, it might require more observation to get an accurate measurement. Where is the animal looking as it moves towards you?

Do you think approaching from a different direction might change the way the animal moves? Might animals react to different people in different ways? Does the speed of the approach matter? Does the angle of approach matter? What happens if you walk in a straight line towards the animal? What if you zig-zag? What if you walk in circles? What if you are really quiet, does that change how the animal reacts? If you are really loud, does that change how the animal reacts? Does it matter to the animal where you look? If you look at the ground, sky or somewhere else besides directly at the animal, how or when does it moves? If you turn your back to the animal, how or where does it move? Does the animal make any sounds as you approach? What do you think the animal is trying to communicate with its vocalizations?

Developing and using models

Try to develop a model for where to stand with this particular animal to get it to move a certain way. Draw the picture (artistic merit is not important) of the animal to the best of your ability. Try to develop a model of where you stand and which way the animal will move. Is it a perfect circle around the animal? Is it bigger on one side compared to the other? What side of the animal do you approach? Can the animal see, hear or smell you when you approach?

Analyzing and interpreting data

Once you make your model, does it always work? Can you determine which way an animal will move 100 percent of the time? What might lead to errors? Are there ways you can improve your model?

Using mathematics and computational thinking

Can the model you used for one animal work for another? If the animal is twice the size, would the zone of approach be twice as big? If the animal was very small, would that change the zone of approach? Does the area in which you test an animal influence where it moves? If you test an animal in their “home” area versus a foreign space, how does that change things? Did the animal stay in an open area as it moved, or did it get closer to a wall, tree or other object in the test area? If there were no objects in the test area, add something and see if that changes how the animal reacts.

Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Does the information gained in this exercise give you ideas on how to better transport your animals? Are there things you can do to get the animal to move better in a show ring? What observations about the animal’s body language can help you understand when it might be good or bad to approach an animal? What did you notice about how its ears moved? What did you notice about eye shape? What did you notice about how a tail moves? What did you notice overall on how the animal moved—was it fluid and seemed normal, or was the animal very rigid and stiff when it was moving? Why do you think you might notice differences in how the animal moves? How can these clues help you be a better caretaker of animals or how to react if you encounter an animal you do not know?

Engaging in argument from evidence

Is there a “best” way to approach an animal? How would you tell another person to approach an animal based on what you learned?

Related questions to explore

  • This could be repeated with several animals, both of the same species or different species. Do you think all animals would respond the same?
  • Do animals respond differently to different people? Could this be quantified?
  • Are there gestures people make that might cause an animal to move? What gestures bring an animal closer? What gestures move an animal farther away?

Asking questions like those mentioned above about something we see a lot, but may not know a lot about, is a great way to explore science around us in our everyday lives. Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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