Plasticine model caterpillars are an excellent tool for quantifying relative predation rates by birds, small mammals, and invertebrates. Life-like surrogate larvae are glued to vegetation for short time periods (1 week) and retain identifiable marks (beak, teeth, mandible imprints) following predator attack. This technique is simple, inexpensive, and provides rapid and clear results. For these reasons, we believe it is a highly effective method of inquiry for middle and high school students. Students can use these methods to ask a variety of research questions, such as comparison of predation in nearby habitats (park vs. backyard), vegetation (tree vs. shrub), or season (spring vs. fall). For many students, this may be one of few opportunities at the middle or high school level to investigate science ‘in the field’ and integrate science practices, such as the scientific method and inquiry, in an authentic research experience. We developed a pilot lesson plan for two schools in Nebraska (Millard South High School and Johnson-Brock Public School) based upon our experiment using these methods at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. High school students designed research questions and conducted their experiment for a week in late September or early October, 2015.
Plasticine caterpillars were effective as an accessible experiment for high school students and provided an opportunity for students to engage in open-ended inquiry. Distinct predatory marks left by birds, small mammals, and invertebrates were highly visible and readily identifiable by students. Students developed their scientific reasoning skills through the development and modification, of research questions. They learned experimental technique (what works, what doesn't work), improved their field skills, and developed collaborative skills. This experiment engages students in an authentic research experience by placing them in the role of scientist, which is exactly what is advised by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Developed by states to improve science education for all students, the NGSS are guidelines for scientific skills and knowledge for K-12 students. Due to the success of this lesson plan and the opportunities it provides for student engagement in actual science, we will further develop it and make the contents freely available through the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation.