Why Did the Anasazi Abandon Mesa Verde

Many middle school curricula include attention to ancient American people and their cultures. This blog entry may be helpful in making connections to the nature of science and scientific enterprises as part of an integrated approach in studying the Anasazi or ancient Pueblos. The story titled “Vanished: A Pueblo Mystery,” published in the New York Times, April 8, 2008, enlightens readers regarding the science of archaeology.

Archaeologists rely on empirical evidence to reconstruct past events. However, this empirical evidence does not normally emanate from controlled laboratory experiments, conceived of and performed at the scientists’ will. Rather, archaeologists use evidence left by the activities of not only people that lived long ago but other organisms as well. They must be skilled observers.

The graphic accompanying the article shows where the Anasazi migrated from–what is now southwestern Colorado–and where they migrated to–what is now the Davis Ranch and Tucson, Arizona, area. There is also a slide show of images of dwellings among other relevant artifacts. For archaeologists interested in this part of the world and these people, the article states, “the most vexing and persistent question in Southwestern archaeology [is]: Why, in the late 13th century, did thousands of Anasazi abandon Kayenta, Mesa Verde and the other magnificent settlements of the Colorado Plateau and move south into Arizona and New Mexico?”

This is not the first time this question has been asked or that an answer has been proposed based on evidence. For example, drought has been documented during this time, providing a seemingly good explanation for the migration. However, evidence suggests many people were able to survive the drought. That fact casts doubt on drought as the only cause for the migration. Further, the area the Anasazi migrated to was actually drier than that which they migrated from.

An alternate hypothesis is based on the pollen record. “Measurements of the thickness of pollen layers, accumulating over decades on the bottom of lakes and bogs, suggest that growing seasons were becoming shorter.” Even this fact in combination with the relatively short drought does not convince many archaeologists these were the reasons for the migration. Why did the Anasazi never return, even when the drought ended? Evidence suggests they did not leave in a hurry, but planned their exit as if they intended to return.

Even more interesting hypotheses are presented regarding the role of religion in the migration. Donna Glowacki, an archaeologist at the University of Notre Dame, cites evidence that suggests the early culture of the group, prior to the migration, included a tradition where only a select, privileged few had access to the largest, most well-equipped dwellings. She asserts a change can be detected after the migration in the southern villages. There evidence indicates fewer of these select kivas are found, suggesting there was less reverence for a select few. The article indicates this change could be analogous to the Protestant reformation.

So who’s right? Well, no one knows for sure, but the Village Ecodynamics Project is set to bring together these various hypotheses to see if a coherent, though probably somewhat complex explanation, or theory, can be constructed. The researchers will use evidence of “rainfall, temperature, soil productivity, human metabolic needs and diet, gleaned from an analysis of trash heaps and human waste” to reconstruct events and come to conclusions.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The article illustrates well the nature of science. Our understanding of the Anasazi migration is undergoing revision in light of new evidence and reinterpretation of existing evidence from new perspectives. It calls attention to the various scientists working on the same project, each contributing unique expertise and building new knowledge. The article conveys several possible hypotheses, all of which need to be thoroughly investigated to see if any can be discarded. It underscores that scientists don’t have definitive, pat answers, only best guesses based on reasonable interpretations of much evidence. Several kinds of, or sources of, evidence are identified giving readers an indication of the nature of archaeology in particular.

Ask students to describe archaeology. Affirm their responses and ask them to elaborate as much as they can. They should use terms like ancient, culture, science, observation, inference and reconstruct. Ask students what kind of knowledge or skills a good archaeologist needs. They should include knowledge of anatomy, plants, and history, and excellent observational skills. Archaeologists need to be global thinkers, able to see relationships among seemingly disparate observations. They should be good team players. If needed, ask leading questions such as: What other fields of science might be related to archaeology? They should include botany, zoology, and anthropology even if they don’t use those names for them.

Explicit connections to life science and earth science can be made, particularly to botany and climate. Ask students how knowledge of the growing season can be inferred from the pollen record. How can inferences regarding wet or dry years be obtained from tree rings?

Here are some additional resources related to the nature of science and fields of science: Science Sampler: Jumping to the Right Conclusions, Inferences, and Predictions;  Presenting a Logical and Reasonable Case Using Logical and Reasonable Arguments; Frequently Asked Questions: Questions about Paleontology.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published April 11, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Mechanism for Antibiotic Resistance Discovered

Those of us born after World War II have take antibiotics for granted. Strep throat? Ear infection? Acne? Bronchitis? Not a problem. Take the full prescribed antibiotic dose and you are cured. The reality of antibiotic resistant bacteria however, disrupts that scenario. No longer can we always trust in a full recovery from a bacterial infection after completing the antibiotic regimen. Rather than continuing to create new and different antibiotics, the trend in research is to discover the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance in order to neutralize it.

How Some Bacteria Survive Antibiotics from ScienceDaily describes how researchers at the University of Illinois, Chicago, studied bacterial action in the presence of erythromycin and related antibiotics. These drugs incapacitate the bacterial protein factories, ribosomes. All cells have ribosomes which are the site of translation in protein synthesis. Erythromycin prevents newly synthesized proteins from detaching from the two subunits of the ribosome, thus preventing the bacteria from thriving. The researchers discovered, however, that these drugs can signal the bacteria to switch a bacterial gene on that enables bacterial release of newly synthesized proteins from the ribosomes. Thus, they effectively resist the drug in a process known as inducible antibiotic expression.

The article quotes one of the researchers

Combining biochemical data with the knowledge of the structure of the ribosome tunnel, we were able to identify some of the key molecular players involved in the induction mechanism. . . .We only researched response to erythromycin-like drugs because the majority of the genetics were already known. There may be other antibiotics and resistance genes in pathogenic bacteria regulated by this same mechanism. This is just the beginning.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

A manifestation of evolution, antibiotic resistance aligns with the Life Science standard of The National Science Education Standards, “Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.” Also related is the structure and function section of the standard: prokaryotic cell structure, the ribosome, and protein synthesis.

Ask students if they have ever had an ear infection or strep throat. What did they do about it? Lead them to disclose that they went to the doctor, were prescribed an antibiotic and took it for the full course, often 10 days. Ask if they were cured then, or did anyone suffer a recurrence within the next week or so? If yes, why? Then what did they do? Lead them to articulate the concept of bacterial resistance. Consider showing visuals of a typical animal eukaryotic cell side by side with a bacterial cell. This will highlight the size and structural difference, and enable student comprehension of how bacterial cells can colonize a eukaryotic cell. Make sure they understand the activity of the millions of bacteria cells a) consumes nutrients needed by one’s own healthy cells and b) produces waste that makes one sick.

If you’ve already discussed the characteristics of living things, cell theory and cell structure, lead students to recall the importance of ribosomes to all living cells. Ask, what might happen if the function of the ribosomes were disrupted? Students should reason that protein production would stop and the cell would die for lack of needed proteins. Inform them that this is the way some antibiotics work; they interfere with the bacterial cells’ ribosome function. (Prokaryotic and eukaryotic ribosome structure varies slightly allowing the eukaryotic ribosomes to remain unaffected.) Ask, what if the presence of the antibiotic signaled the bacteria to produce a protein (turn a gene on) that interfered with the drug’s ability to disrupt the ribosome’s work? Allow plenty of wait time for them to think this through logically. They should arrive at the idea of antibiotic resistance, even if they don’t use that phrase.

Allow students to read the first three paragraphs above and follow the links. The protein synthesis link however, is probably too advanced for middle school students and can be eliminated. Have them read the article How Some Bacteria Survive Antibiotics. Assess: what is an antibiotic? How do drugs like erythromycin work? What is inducible antibiotic expression? How might it be helpful to know the mechanisms by which bacteria resist antibiotics? Describe how antibiotic resistance is an example of evolution.

Here are some additional resources from the Middle School Portal 2 related to antibiotic resistance and bacteria: Introduction to Bacteria; Microbes: Too Smart for Antibiotics?; Microbes: What They do and how Antibiotics Change Them; and What’s making you sick?

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 9, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

How Is Species Defined and Why Does It Matter? The Politics of Conservation

This post focuses on the definition of species and its implications beyond science content knowledge—specifically, how the definition is related to species conservation and protection.

For example, the brown bear of the Iberian Peninsula is a different species compared with other European brown bears because it is geographically isolated, right? According to a press release, New Study Changes Conditions for Spanish Brown Bears, published by AAAS’s EurekAlert! there are just two small populations of this bear and they are threatened. One idea to help bolster their population size is to introduce brown bears from other European populations. However, this may cause hybridization and eventual loss of the Iberian Peninsula brown bear species. Further, what makes conservation biologists think the two different bears will interbreed successfully?

According to the Life Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards, middle school students should be learning concepts associated with structure and function in living systems; reproduction and heredity; regulation and behavior; populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms. All of these areas of study are related to the concept of species. That is, discussions in any of these areas will necessarily be founded on an understanding of the term “species.”

Can we take for granted that middle school students have developed an accurate concept of species on their own, through personal experience? Because they can distinguish cat from dog, a rose from a maple tree, and a human from an ant, is it safe to assume they have a good grasp of the concept? Not if we wish to facilitate and broaden students’ conceptual understandings to progressively more sophisticated levels.

Students understand that cats and dogs, roses and maple trees, and humans and ants do not interbreed. Thus, they have an understanding of the biological definition of species. But things can get complicated and this definition does not always fit. Another perspective assumes reproductive isolation defines species. That is, if two populations are physically or temporally isolated preventing interbreeding, then they are considered separate species. That works well conceptually for most middle school students’ experience, but what about when individuals from one geographically isolated population are introduced to another, either intentionally or unintentionally, and they successfully interbreed?

When discussions around Mendelian genetics occur, the concept of hybrid is introduced. Plants do this all the time. Is the hybrid a new species? They often can and do interbreed. Are the offspring a new species? Most would hesitate to say yes. Then do we revise our definition of species? Those reproductively isolated populations really are the same species after all?

Contrary to what most people believe, the concept of species seems to be a moving target in terms of pinning a definition on it. As such, it is open to criticism from people who believe science is supposed to be definitive. This presents an opportunity for teachers to reinforce the nature of science, and life science particularly. Living systems, from a single cell to a biome, are dynamic and not entirely definitively understood. (If they were, conservation would probably not be an issue!)

Assuming a fixed definition of species may be unreasonable. One’s definition of species is contextual, dependent upon the current issue under consideration. It is important that discussants have a common definition of species in these instances. Why? Because the focus of and outcomes of species-related discussions can determine political policy, such as what gets listed as a threatened or endangered species and receives federal funding for protection from habitat destruction or hunting.

DNA sequencing allows for almost unequivocal determination of whether individuals from two different populations are the same species, and consequently subject to the same political treatment. In the case of the Spanish brown bears, DNA sequencing suggests they are not a distinct species from other European brown bears. That means introducing bears from other populations will not supplant the Iberian Peninsula brown bears. The proposed conservation strategy is a viable one. Scientists are confident that the introduced bears will successfully interbreed with the Spanish brown bears due to the genetic similarity. This constitutes a prediction, and its accuracy will be determined only after bears are introduced into the area.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

Consider the American Bald Eagle. It is cited as a success story of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It has recovered from its endangered status and was delisted in 2007. This means the bird is no longer protected under federal law in terms of some kinds of hunting and habitat protection. States are free to make their own regulations regarding hunting and protection of the species.

More recently, the Northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolf was delisted. The Western Great Lakes grey wolf population was also delisted. States that are host to these two populations have the power to regulate hunting and management of the animals. However, any wolves on National Park Service land or outside the two areas mentioned above, are under federal government protection.

How is species defined? Ask students if dogs and wolves are separate species. How do they know? Accept all reasonable responses. Are lions and tigers? Are saber toothed cats and Bengal tigers? Lead students to define species in terms of (a) macroscopic anatomy, (b) geographic isolation (lions and tigers), and (c) temporal isolation (extinct and extant cats). This discussion should highlight the difficulty in pinpointing a definition. None is incorrect, yet none is fully sufficient. This is acceptable in classroom discussions, but when conservation groups discuss species, they have to be specific. For example, in delisting the Rocky Mountain gray wolf, the documents specify the geographic region that defines the population. Individual animals falling outside the defined geographic range are not delisted and remain protected by the ESA.

Can students imagine that features other than those immediately visible could be considered in determining who is different and who is the same species? For example, in Batesian mimicry two species are physically similar, but one is poisonous to predators while the other is not. Lead students to understand that there are microscopic or chemical means of determining similarity and differences. Conversely, two populations can appear to be quite different but are chemically quite similar. (This may explain the original assumption that the Spanish brown bear was a separate species from other European brown bears.) The morphological difference is attributed to environmental influences, not genetic differences, and so it is predicted the two populations could interbreed successfully. That’s often good news for conservation management.

What do students think the Endangered Species Act is? Why is it needed? Allow them to brainstorm. Then show them pages from http://www.fws.gov/endangered/about/index.html to either confirm their list or amend it. Can they name any organisms on the list now? Call attention to species other than mammals, including plants. How do students suppose an organism gets listed/delisted? Have students investigate this question at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/species/us-species.html. Facilitate student discovery that the process is not neat and easy necessarily. Rather it can be emotional and partisan. Why?

Here are some additional resources from the Middle School Portal 2 related to conservation and wildlife management: Natural Resources, the Environment, and Ecosystems; and DDT Quest.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published March 26, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Crop Failures and Food Riots

In the spring of 2008, many news outlets reported that rice crop failures in East Asia could have been avoided. An infestation of the brown plant hopper is the cause for the crop failure. The science knowledge and biotechnology needed to breed resistant rice plants have been in existence for several years. However, funds were not available to mass produce these rice strains and get them into the hands of rice growers. This is one example of crop failure that, when combined with other agricultural woes, fueled food riots around the world, but especially among the poorest people in the least developed nations.

The New York Times published an article that comprehensively describes how this preventable tragedy happened – World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut. As with most sociopolitical issues, a combination of circumstances over a long period of time must be considered if one is to accurately account for the current crisis. The article conveys the history of agriculture research, including the Green Revolution of the 1960s and the great advances that emerged then. Ironically that successful movement contributed to the current lack of available funding; as agriculture problems were solved and world food supplies outpaced demand, research money was directed elsewhere.

The article, part of a series on the world’s food production, includes a nice depth and breadth of information concerning agricultural research. Several photos and related links are included.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The issues described in the news article connect to the History and Nature of Science, Life Science, Science and Technology, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards. Here, we narrow our focus to the first two standards. However, this topic – world food supplies as related to agriculture and biotechnology – could easily serve as basis for an interdisciplinary unit in the middle grades.

Do any of the students have experience in growing vegetables? Ask students, what are some of the problems gardeners have to deal with in order to maintain their vegetables? What are some ways to deal with those problems? Help students to include the problem of insect pests in the discussion. Is it reasonable to assume that growers of crops on a large scale also have the same or similar problems? Can growers use the same approaches to deal with their problems that the gardener uses? Why or why not?

Ask students if they can identify one food plant, or crop, that is probably the world’s most common source of food. Consider keeping a list of all ideas and then asking the class to think carefully and critically when they answer these questions: What crop could probably be eliminated from the list, compared to the rest of the list? Why do they believe the food they are choosing to eliminate is probably not the world’s top food crop? You will hope that rice remains on the list!

Ask students to imagine that an insect has infested a large part of the world’s most important food crop. Consider putting the students in small groups in which they predict the consequences of an infestation. You might stipulate that they must have a clear prediction with logical justification for each domain: economy, culture, public health, government, military, and education. Next, ask them to articulate one or two questions that science could investigate in the hope of avoiding the consequences their group identified. For example, Which varieties of rice are most insect resistant? What other food crops can be grown in the areas where rice is currently grown? What nutritional substitutes should/could be distributed to areas where rice is in short supply? Students’ questions will vary widely and all are correct, as long as the questions can be subjected to scientific investigation and seem to point toward a solution to the stated problem.

Share with students the New York Times article, showing that such an event – insect infestation of an important crop – actually happened. Show them the pictures at the story’s web site. Inform them that the knowledge and technology necessary to prevent this disaster already exist. Ask students to speculate then on how this could have happened if people already know how to combat it. Lead them to understand the complexity of the history, funding, cultural values, and competition for funding as contributors to the situation. Finally, confirm and affirm the students’ predictions. They may have heard about food riots for example, in Africa and elsewhere. Ask them what direction they think governments and researchers should go next? Why?

As an extension, you could elaborate on the evolution aspect of the story: the way the bug has evolved through natural selection made possible by use of insecticides.

Here are additional resources from the National Science Digital Library Middle School Portal related to gardening, agriculture and natural selection: Thinking Green? Grow Your Own!; What Are Seed Banks and How Do They Work? and Dr. Saul’s Biology in Motion.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published May 21, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/19/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

After 50 Years, Scientists Still Not Sure How DEET Works

DEET (short for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the most widely used insect repellent in the world for a very good reason – it works really, really well! Just a quick spray on exposed skin keeps mosquitoes, flies, fleas, chiggers, and ticks away. Developed by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and patented by the U.S. Army in 1946, millions of people worldwide use DEET to ward off vector-borne diseases. First of all, why would researchers study DEET if it works so well? While DEET is an effective repellent, it doesn’t work against all bugs, it’s corrosive to plastics and there are concerns about its effect on human health.

 

Structural Formula for N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).
Courtesy of Wikipedia – Click on the image for a larger version.

How DEET actually works has puzzled scientists for more than 50 years. Scientists long surmised that DEET masks the smell of the host, or jams or corrupts the insect’s senses, interfering with its ability to locate a host. Mosquitoes and other blood-feeding insects find their hosts by body heat, skin odors, carbon dioxide (breath), or visual stimuli.

Amazingly, within a few months this year, scientists from two different labs have come up with competing explanations of how DEET works. In March of 2008, researchers at Rockefeller University in New York, said that DEET jams odorant receptors in insect nervous systems, in effect masking odors that would ordinarily attract the bugs. According to Dr. Leslie B. Vosshall, a researcher who worked on the project, now that they know that DEET targets OR83b co-receptors, they can quickly screen thousands of other compounds in hope of finding one that is even more effective and has fewer disadvantages.

Are you sure, ask researchers at the University of California, Davis? Mosquitoes flee because of their intense dislike for the smell of the chemical repellent and not because DEET jams their sense of smell. In August 2008, in a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they provide a simpler explanation. Mosquitoes, they say, smell DEET directly and avoid it.

Dr. Vosshall, involved in the earlier study, said that her team stood by its work, and that its findings were based on a variety of experiments. So for now, the jury is still out.

Connecting to the National Science Education Standards

These competing explanations on how DEET works provides a perfect example of one aspect of the nature of science – Scientific Claims are Subject to Peer Review and Replication. Researchers in labs across the world work on answering many of the same questions. The results of their work are published in peer reviewed journals so that researchers around the world can examine their data and logic, identify alternative explanations, and replicate observations and experiments. Peer review is an integral part of genuine scientific enterprise and goes on continuously in all areas of science.

The National Science Education Standards in the History and Nature of Science Content Standard G describes what middle school students should understand about this part of the nature of science, including:

It is normal for scientists to differ with one another about the interpretation of the evidence or theory being considered.

Different scientists might publish conflicting experimental results or might draw different conclusions from the same data.

It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists.

Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science.

Additional Resources

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Science For All Americans Online: The Nature of Science
Science for All Americans consists of a set of recommendations on what understandings and ways of thinking are essential for all citizens in a world shaped by science and technology.

Household Product Database
List of products that contain DEET.

Chemical Technical Summary for Public Health and Public Safety Professionals
The Department of Health and Human Services provides a summary of all medical cases and research done on DEET.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Kimberly Lightle and published August 26, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/19/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.