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May 7, 2020

Investigating Instinct

With intensive lab and research components, Assistant Professor of Biology Christine Stracey’s course on animal behavior dives deep into the diverse approaches in which animal behavior can be studied.

“I always thought that being a veterinarian was the only option for a career with animals, but Guilford has shown me through a variety of biology courses that many careers are available in which I can study animals in a non-medical field. I chose to take Animal Behavior to explore these options, and I’m so glad I did,” says Biology major Madison Burkardt ’22.

Christine covers everything from the relationship between behavior and ecology to the diversity of communication systems and social organizations in animals, with a focus throughout the course on how natural selection acts to determine the particular behaviors of various species.

She says she hopes, however, that students learn more than just memorizing certain behaviors. Christine aims to teach students the tools they need to think like a behavioral biologist. “One of my favorite things about this course is watching students change the way they think about animal behavior,” she says. Students learn to ask insightful questions and analyze information from a biological approach.

“I learned that the mentality of animals is much more complex and diverse than I expected,” Madison shares. “What humans think is the rational thing to do is not what a hyena or a hummingbird thinks is rational, and it is fascinating to learn about the evolutionary motivations of different species, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of their offspring that they haven’t even had yet.”

The course is structured to give students the opportunity to participate in authentic research experiences. Through an independent project they actually take steps that contribute to scientific knowledge. Christine introduces videos of mockingbirds and bluebirds from her own research and then students develop research questions, design and execute their own methods of data collection, and then they analyze the data and present their findings.

“I'm positive students will remember these projects years from now,” she says. “This is also important because it gives students who are interested in grad school some experience with what research entails, and their participation is an important resume builder. It also hooks students who didn't know they loved research!” 

The class also participates in a variety of lectures, readings, discussions, and observation and experimentation in the laboratory and field, including a trip to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. 

“Visiting the zoo and getting to design our own study of any animal we chose was so rewarding, as this was the first time I felt like a true ‘scientist,’” Madison says.  “I chose the polar bears to study, and it felt so surreal getting to simply observe them for hours and gather real data on their behavior.”

A Classroom Evolution

This semester presented a unique challenge with the transition to online learning. Lectures on content went online, students participated in discussion boards, and lab time became devoted to their research projects. Fortunately, the class had finished with all the live animal labs, but making sure students were supported through the data analysis and poster-making process was still a challenge.  
“I did a ton of individual meetings and screen shares. And I developed an online module that walked students through the poster-making process. I think that really helped, and so I plan to use that in the future even when we're back in a live classroom,” Christine says.
In future semesters, she looks forward to students being able to officially present their research findings to the entire community at Guilford Undergraduate Symposium, which was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. Until then, she plans to continue optimizing the research projects and hopes to work more closely with the zoo to give students a richer research experience there.

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