By Anna Guido
As Cincinnati Zoo educator Penny Jarrett was discussing owl vomit, Merlin, the zoo's screech owl, provided a live demonstration.
"I was actually talking about how owls bring up the undigested parts of the food they eat, and low and behold, Merlin cooperated to the full extent and coughed up an owl pellet," Jarrett said.
Owls eat small prey whole and cannot digest bones and fur, so they produce compact pellets that they regurgitate several hours after a meal.
Dissecting owl pellets is all the rage now in science education, offering students a chance to learn first-hand about owls, their prey and the circle of life.
Nationally, the approach to teaching science is changing dramatically, in part to help improve low proficiency scores. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) suggests one reason is that U.S. students are taught too many topics at a superficial level.
Innovative programs such as owl pellet dissection help to advance the discovery and understanding of science because it delves beyond the superficial.
Jarrett said her outreach visit with Merlin to South Avondale Elementary School received high marks from students for its "yuck factor."
Jarrett's colleague, Shasta Back, a curriculum writer for the zoo's education department, concurred. "That's what kids like."
"It make science more interesting," Back said. "It's pretty gross, but it's not so messy or smelly, and it's accessible and easy to use and pretty readily available."
An estimated 60 percent of U.S. schoolchildren in grades 3-9 now study owl pellets, which can be purchased from online suppliers.
That wasn't always the case. Three years ago, when Westport, Conn., author Jane Hammerslough was looking for information on owl pellets (after participating in her third-grade son's owl pellet dissection project at school), little was available.
"My son was just loving it and wanted to do more and learn more, but I couldn't find anything," she said.
Hammerslough's solution was to write Owl Puke: The Book (Workman Publishing, 2004), complete with a heat-sterilized owl pellet, bone tray and chart to help readers identify the remains and assemble them into a skeleton.
If you go
Jane Hammerslough, author of Owl Puke: The Book, will promote her book at 1 p.m. April 21 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Pavilion, 2692 Madison Road, Norwood.
Schools are invited. Owl pellets will be available for dissection. Teachers interested in bringing their classes should contact Joseph-Beth's Sarah Hall at 731-7770, ext. 114.
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