NOVA scienceNOW: Profile: Erich Jarvis
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
5-gallon tank holding 2-4 goldfish
Set the goldfish tank in a quiet area.
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.
Make sure there are no additional external stimuli, such as lighting changes
in the area of the tank or movement around the tank.
Note where the fish are in the tank.
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
Repeat step 5, playing the same song in the other CD player.
Record observations and draw conclusions
Possible follow-up experiments
Test different volume levels or types of music.
"Birdbrain" No Longer Means "Stupid," Asserts Scientific Consortium
Discusses why Jarvis wanted to change the old terminology related to bird brain
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'
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.