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Making Sense of Data
Dealing with Unusual Findings (Sightings)

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Scientists often find that data conflicts with conventional scientific wisdom, breaks dramatically from an expected pattern, or otherwise perplexes them. In Journey North, unusual sightings are common — a Monarch spotted in England or a hummingbird sighted much too "early" in the season, for instance. When students notice data that is inconsistent with what they assume or know to be scientifically reasonable, seize the opportunity to push their thinking and problem-solving skills. The following classroom strategies reflect how a scientist might approach anomolies in data.


Question the Methods
Have students try to verify the accuracy of the data by asking questions about the collector and collection process. (They may want to generate a list of questions and e-mail them to the observer.)
  • What standards/protocols were used in collecting data?
  • Who was the observer and what knowledge or experience does she or he have? (For instance, Does he know how to identify a whooping crane?)
  • What other factors could have affected the findings?

Form Tentative Explanations
As a class or in small groups, have students use their knowledge, experience, and imaginations to come up with tentative explanations for the unusual sighting. Here are some of the questions they might ask:
  • Could a change in the environment (e.g., short-term weather, long-term climate) explain the unusual sighting?
  • Could a human factor be responsible (e.g., development or deforestation that affects an animal's normal habitat)?

To inspire a fruitful discussion and encourage participation, set out these guidelines.

  • Explain your ideas and try to support them.
  • Respectfully listen to others' tentative explanations.
  • Revise your thinking, challenge others' ideas, or defend your own.
Ask the class, What new data or information would help us check and further refine our explanations? If practical, give students time to pursue further research or e-mail "experts."

 

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