Science from a 2-min video about birds

This morning, I saw one of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen — here’s a screen capture from the video:

Now there are several cool things about this video. First, you need to take two minutes to watch the video if you have not already done so.

Was that cool or what?

Now, here’s some context for what you just saw:

According to a great article in Wired Magazine (a short article and worth the click), there’s a lot to be learned from studying why birds are able to flock in twists and turns like that, and there are connections with other fields of science.  Here’s a quote from the Wired article:

It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.

And I also found out that the reason the birds flock in that way is that it’s a matter of survival — as this article in Huffington Post points out so eloquently…

According to the Telegraph, what makes it so beautiful is actually a survival function:

“Numbers build up slowly near the roost over the afternoon as small groups of birds return from foraging in the area,” explains Paul Stancliffe of the British Trust for Ornithology. “By late afternoon there is a huge swirling cloud. It’s all about safety in numbers – none wants to be on the outside, none wants to be first to land.” “

The reason for the double quotes there is that the Huffington Post is quoting an article from the Telegraph (in London) from 2009.  The title of the article from 2009 is The Mathematics of Murmurating Starlings, which is probably not the world’s most compelling title, and that may explain why you never heard of this phenomena before…

When I saw this video, I thought about how — with the sort of curricular flexibility students and teachers (aka “learners”) will have at my school when it opens in August 2013 — this could become a 3-4 day project where we’d contact local biologists and physicists and try to figure out what’s going on in the video.

Then, as a project (students will be making lots of real-world projects at my school) we’d make a website that started with this 2-minute video about the birds as a hook — but then we’d do the hard work of explaining the science behind it. A good project would show how complicated this phenomena is and would highlight the areas that scientists aren’t sure about.

The point would be to do more than watch the video, say “how cool,” and then go on with business as usual, as mapped out in the curriculum. The point is to be able — on occasion — to take time to step back and ask: How does biology and physics explain what’s happening there?

This would be an example of applied science. And it came from a compelling video that made people want to learn. I mean come on, after seeing that video, you had to be asking yourself: why did that happen?

That’s a compelling way to start a morning, and it would be satisfying to have the time to reflect and wonder and dig deep into WHY that happened, rather than just saying “what a cool video” and moving on to the day’s plan for math or English or science.

We should have the freedom to learn in-depth about the world as we encounter it. That means that when there are protests in Egypt, for example, that start the Arab Spring, we can decide to take a few days to understand the historic moment we’re living through.

See my earlier post, titled Applied History, which details how a group of 19 busy high school students came to my classroom at 7 a.m. — a full hour before school started — on a Friday morning back in February to learn more about what was going on in Egypt.

They came not because they were in my class (many of them were not) or because they would be graded, but because we all have an intrinsic desire to learn about the world we live in. And when something cool happens — be it a flock of birds in a murmuration (isn’t it cool you know what that term means now?) or a flock of protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout Egypt — we want to understand WHY.

School should be that exciting all the time! I’m not being facetious here — why isn’t school more fun and why aren’t students more engaged? Learning is FUN. Or it should be.

And that’s not to say that learning is “fun” as in we’re constantly entertained — I mean that it’s fun to work hard to come to a deep understanding about whatever aspect of the world you’re looking at. And since the world is inter-disciplinary, our approach to the world needs to be inter-disciplinary as well.

One final note, on how the world is so inter-connected — I learned about this 2-minute video from a newsletter made by a school in Switzerland. How did I connect with Switzerland?  Well, the former head of Durham Academy’s upper school, Michael Ulku-Steiner, is now head of The American School in Switzerland.  Michael shared this video with his school community via his monthly newsletter, which he is kind enough to share with others.

Here’s what I saw in the email Michael sent me:

With all respect to Michael and the folks who help put out his newsletter, we educators need to do more than just provide members of our community with jaw-dropping inspiration. We need to have the flexibility within our curriculum to follow moments of jaw-dropping inspiration to their full inter-disciplinary conclusion.

I’ll give another example of this in my next post, which will be about the Three Gorges Dam in China, a topic I’ve found that 9th grade students are fascinated to learn more about — if only there were time…

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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One Response to Science from a 2-min video about birds

  1. Karl S. says:

    Flat, Hot, and Learning Enabled when links travel halfway around the world and end up in an RSS reader. An awe inspiring video and like you say, Steve, begs for a stop, drop, and learn approach instead of nice video, now turn to page 231 of your soon to be forgotten textbook.

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