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NOVA scienceNOW: Profile: Erich Jarvis

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Accurate language and terminology are critical to understanding. In the program, Erich Jarvis discusses the importance of using correct terminology to name the different parts of birds' brains. According to Jarvis, the old nomenclature caused people to misjudge the intelligence of birds. Have students name other areas of science in which specific, correct language matters a great deal, such as conducting surgery, diagnosing diseases, naming chemical elements, and classifying organisms. Then have students participate in the following challenge that demonstrates the importance of using precise terminology.

    On index cards, (one per card), write a phrase with the name of a specific familiar place, such as: the food court in the mall, a specific section of a local book store, a specific area of your school's campus, the counter in an ice-cream shop in town, or the fire station or police station in town. Divide the class into teams and have each one pick a card. Ask teams to generate a list of five words—a mix of general and specific terms—associated with the location on the card. However, they are not allowed to use a word already in the phrase. Have them rank the words, as best they can, from the most general to the most specific. Then, have a team read the most general word to the class. The class's challenge is to identify the phrase written on the card. A team reads its list, using increasingly specific terminology until the class identifies the phrase. Discuss the effect of general versus specific terminology as it conveys meaning.

  2. The newly adopted system of bird brain nomenclature changes 95 percent of the terms previously used to describe the structure of bird's brains. These changes altered the field of biology in several ways. Birds were considered to have only instinctive behaviors. However, research showed that they demonstrate some complex behaviors similar to those in mammals. Erich Jarvis understood that changing terminology would be important to biology, but that his work would be met with resistance. On the board, write the following terms from the old bird brain nomenclature: the Archicortex and the Palaeostraitum primitivum. Ask if students can identify how these names reflect a view that the bird brain is a simple, primitive structure. (Palaeo means "oldest," archi means archaic, and primitivum means primitive.)

    View a bird brain model on NOVA scienceNOW and get an inside look at just what makes up a bird brain. (QuickTime plug-in required for rotating brain image.)

  3. In the program, an experiment demonstrates a crow's intelligence and reasoning abilities. The crow must figure out how to lift a small bucket from a cylinder. After unsuccessfully using a straight wire, the crow bends the wire so it can hook around the handle of the bucket, enabling it to lift the bucket out of the container and get the food. Demonstrate what researchers mean when they refer to intelligence and complex behavior in birds— have students experience their own reasoning, problem-solving, and tool-making abilities. Some suggested activities include:

    • Repeat the test given to the crow by putting a small bucket in a tube and providing the students with a straight piece of wire.

    • Place a ping-pong ball in a 500 ml graduated cylinder. Have students figure out how to get the ball out without touching the cylinder. (Add water)

    • Place a small ball of clay under a set of pick-up sticks. Have students remove the ball without touching the sticks with their fingers. (Use a pencil or straw.)

    • Have students release their fingers from a set of finger tubes—the straw cylinder that tighten around one's finger when attempts are made to pull it the finger free. (Press the ends of the finger-cuff together and gently remove the finger.)

    • Have students retrieve a button frozen in an ice cube. (Melt ice in warm water.)

After Watching

  1. In the segment, Erich Jarvis discusses how working through a dance routine is similar to working through scientific research questions. Encourage students to contrast scientific thinking and creativity with artistic thinking and creativity. Have half the class interview amateur or professional artists (e.g., painters, musicians, dancers, writers, actors) and half interview scientists, engineers, doctors, or mathematicians. You might have some students work in teams. Before beginning, develop an interview questionnaire, such as:

    • Would you describe yourself as an artist, a scientist, or both?

    • What is your specific field?

    • Describe how you generate ideas for your work.

    • Describe how you perform your work.

    • How does your daily work provide you ways of being creative?

    • What is your biggest challenge in your work?

    • What is your biggest reward in your work?

    • What personal characteristics are most important in your work?

    Have students share their findings. How are "doing science" and "doing art" alike and different?

  2. In the program, Jarvis' mentor, Rivka Rudner discusses Jarvis's creative approach and dedication to his work. She provided him much support and encouragement. Ask students if they have had mentors, and have them share how the mentors influenced their lives. Then have students ask their teachers, parents, or family friends about important mentors in their lives. As a class, generate a list of questions students might ask such as:

    • Did you have someone who provided support and encouragement for you in your work?

    • How did you meet this person?

    • What did this person do that made you feel encouraged?

    • Does the support you received from your mentor still affect your life? How?

    Hold a class discussion and ask students to share their findings.

  3. To give students an idea of how to understand animal intelligence, have teams design an experiment in which they test a question related to animal behavior. To begin, choose one of the following questions as a sample experiment to work through with the class.

    • Do goldfish respond to music?
    • Do goldfish respond to changes in light?
    • Can dogs discriminate between paintings of living and nonliving things?
    • Do dogs remember what happened a day earlier?
    • Do dogs have a sense of humor?
    • Can cats plan for a future event?
    • Can cats differentiate amongst different kinds of music?
    • Do turtles respond to heat? Cold?
    • Can frogs return to the same hiding places?
    • Which water temperature is most comfortable for frogs?

    Work through a sample experiment with the class. Have the class identify a question to test. Write it on the board. Next, have students define the hypothesis, a materials list, and a procedure. In addition, consider any concerns or problems related to the experimental design and ideas for future experiments. After completing the sample, divide the class into teams. Each team should choose a question, brainstorm experiment ideas, and write a procedure for their experiment similar to the one modeled in class. Ask teams to share their experiment ideas. Below is a sample of what a team's final write-up might look like.

    Question: Do goldfish respond to music?

    Goldfish will move away from music

    2 CD players
    1 CD
    5-gallon tank holding 2-4 goldfish


    1. Set the goldfish tank in a quiet area.

    2. Set up the CD players so that one is on the left side and one is on the right side of the tank. Wait 5-10 minutes.

    3. Make sure there are no additional external stimuli, such as lighting changes in the area of the tank or movement around the tank.

    4. Note where the fish are in the tank.

    5. Play music in one CD player for two minutes. Note the responses of the fish. Turn off the CD player. Note the response of the fish over the next two minutes.

    6. Repeat step 5, playing the same song in the other CD player.

    7. Record observations and draw conclusions

    Possible follow-up experiments
    Test different volume levels or types of music.

Links and Books

Web Sites

"Birdbrain" No Longer Means "Stupid," Asserts Scientific Consortium
Discusses why Jarvis wanted to change the old terminology related to bird brain structures.

Nervous System: Brain and Senses
Contrasts the classic and modern views of bird brains and presents a new understanding of vertebrate brain evolution and intelligence in birds.

Singing in the Brain—Bird Studies
Explains Jarvis' laboratory work and field research.

The Life of Birds: Bird Brains
Describes behaviors in birds that demonstrate their intelligence.


Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich. HarperCollins, 2000.
Describes Heinrich's observations of ravens and discusses the birds' intelligence.

The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley. Knopf Publishers, 2001.
Incorporates the work of several bird experts and includes information about bird brains and bird intelligence.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Profile: Erich Jarvis

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