Family STEM: Tracking Animal Behaviors

By Lindsay Carroll, Oregon Sea Grant

Do you have a cat or dog at home that you find yourself watching a little more closely these days? Have you caught on to some of the behaviors of your pets or perhaps of birds, rabbits, or chipmunks you’ve seen out your window? You may have been inspired to take a closer look at the environment around you after reading the recently published Family STEM blog “Take a Fresh Look at Nature“.

With more time spent at home, you may find that your dog sleeps or rests all day long. You may have also noticed they wag their tail with excitement during play or when you come home from the grocery store. Or possibly those famous looks of guilt when they have gotten into the trash for the 100th time? Either way, all of these actions are behaviors. Do you think you would have noticed the amount of time your dog spends doing these behaviors if you weren’t home with them all of the time?


Over time, scientists have tracked behaviors of a lot of different animals because recording what they are doing (behavior) and how long they are doing it (time) is how we learn more about them. Scientists who study animal behaviors are known as ethologists and they use ethograms as a way to collect data and answer important questions.

When you think of tracking animal behavior, you may think of the famous ethologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, and her work with chimpanzees. It is because of her many years of research and time spent with chimpanzees in their natural environment that we know so much about them. Get inspired by her decades of research!

Photo credit: Satya Deep, Unsplash

Then, see first hand the type of behaviors she may have witnessed over the years as you watch the monkeys in this video. Take a mental note or make a list of the various behaviors you observe. 

Have a fish tank at home? Take five minutes to note the different behaviors you observe of your fish. No fish tank? It’s ok, watch the first few minutes of these goldfish and take note of the different behaviors you see. What do the fish spend most of their time doing?

Photo credit: Biljana Martinic – Unsplash

You’re starting to look at these animals a little bit differently, right? Now, watch a zookeeper from the John Ball Zoo use an ethogram to learn more about her dog’s behavior in the backyard. Be sure to take note of the question she is trying to answer about her dog.


Now that we have spent some time observing a few animals and taking note of some of their behaviors, you may have a few questions.

Photo credit: Jules Bss – Unsplash

For example, you may wonder “Do fish in my fish tank spend most of their time swimming?” Or even, better — your observations may have inspired you to test a hypothesis, or educated guess, such as “I think the fish in my fish tank spend most of their time swimming.” What other questions might you have about the animals you observed?

Think back to the zookeeper who conducted an ethogram on her dog. What question was she trying to answer? You may have noted that she recently moved to a new home and she wanted to determine if her dog was adjusting well to a new space. By comparing her dog’s previous behavior to the data she collected, she determined her dog appears comfortable in her new home.

Equipped with all of this new knowledge, think of an animal on which you want to use  an ethogram to learn more about their behaviors. What question do you want to ask?


STEP ONE: Select an Animal
If you have pets at home, great! No pets at home? Consider an animal in your backyard OR watch pre-recorded footage of animals listed below.

Photo credit: Oregon Sea Grant

You could also consider conducting your ethogram using one of the following webcams from local zoos and aquariums. But, note that these animals can be very mobile!

STEP TWO: Make Observations and Develop a Question
Whether you are watching your animal live or on a screen, be sure to take a few minutes to note some of their behaviors ahead of time. That way you can use your observations to inform a question you want to answer about your animal.

STEP THREE: Collect Data
Now it is time to collect behavior data on your animal! For your ethogram, you will record the behavior of your animal every 30 seconds for 10-15 minutes. Since we are collecting data, we need a data table. What should your data table look like? Think about the different variables we are considering – behaviors and time. For some pointers – try reflecting back to the zookeeper’s datasheet shown at the end of her video or possibly get some tips from this educator from the Environmental Learning Center. 

STEP FOUR: Draw Conclusions
You have data! Now, think back to your original question. What are some conclusions you can draw from the data collected? What are some of the behaviors your animal exhibited most frequently?  Why did animals do some behaviors more often than others? If you watched the goldfish in the tank – do they actually spend most of their time swimming?

STEP FIVE: Expand and Elevate Your Learning
Interested in expanding and elevating your ethogram abilities? Consider using this Sea Lion Ethogram Datasheet to conduct an ethogram on a sea lion located in Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves. Use footage from the Sea Lion Cave webcam and see what those often loud, smelly, but fun critters are up to these days. Are there new behaviors you are observing? Are there behaviors missing from the datasheet? Have fun with it!

Photo credit: Tracy Crews, Oregon Sea Grant


While it may be fun to watch your pets behaviors or learn more about animals via live webcams, we must take a minute to think about why we are doing it. What does it all mean? What information can be gained using ethograms? Not only can scientists learn more about animal behaviors, but once a baseline of behaviors is established, scientists can use ethograms to determine dramatic changes to an animal’s well-being and what may have caused them.

Tracking the behaviors of animals in zoos and aquaria is especially important, as unusual behaviors can often be a sign of changes to the animal’s health. Ethogram data can track different behaviors related to feeding, reproductive status, mating, seasonal changes, age/sex differences, social group dynamics, and more. Having a deeper understanding of these behaviors of animals in captivity could also  inform protection or management of wild animals.

In essence, ethograms help us detect Patterns, which is one of seven cross-cutting concepts that are prevalent throughout all science disciplines. Patterns occur all throughout the natural world. Think about the patterns you notice among honeycombs, flowers, and zebras. Just like these visual patterns, animals exhibit patterns of behaviors as well. Anomalies that we notice are what bring our attention to change and difference in the animal.

It is also important to note that as you move through the process of collecting data for an ethogram, you are engaging in critical Practices of Science. You are: 

  • Asking questions
  • Planning and carrying out an investigation
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using math
  • Constructing explanations


Photo credit: Oregon Sea Grant, GEMS

Knowledge is power! If you used an ethogram to learn more about your pet, you will be equipped with important baseline information that could be used to determine a change in their health or well-being in the future. 

Your curiosity does not need to end here. Consider increasing your data collection frequency – see if you notice new behaviors or perhaps the most common behavior changes. Think critically about what could be causing the differences. Is there a new question you could ask or hypothesis you could test?

Sample Questions:
“Does my pet….”

  • Spend more time on the floor or on the couch?
  • Sleep more than 6 hours a day?
  • Pee on one, many, or perhaps specific objects?
  • Behave differently when it is raining versus sunny? 
  • Act differently in the morning versus in the evening?

Photo credit: Ruby Schmank – Unsplash

Celebrate your newly gained information by sharing it with a friend! Do they also have a pet at home? Perhaps challenge them to use an ethogram to learn more about their pet and compare common behaviors. Does your dog rest more or less than their dog? Or, challenge them to watch the same webcam or online video and compare notes. Options are endless, so have fun with it. You are well on your way to becoming the next Dr. Jane Goodall!

Lindsay Carroll is the Marine Education Coordinator with Oregon Sea Grant, which is one of more than 60 partnering organizations in the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lesson on our website:

Family STEM: A Week of Fun Challenges

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant

Are you tired of all of the screen time associated with work and school? Are you looking for simple STEM activities that you can do at home with your family? Check out the daily challenges from STEM Week Oregon. There’s an activity for each day of the week!


STEM Week Oregon is a week-long event that takes place annually in May. This state-wide movement celebrates and engages communities in activities involving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Although this year’s STEM Week was officially celebrated May 9-17, you and your family can participate in daily STEM challenges any time!

This spring has been unusual, to say the least. A lot of us have been stuck indoors and spending a lot of our time looking at screens. That’s one reason why Oregon’s STEM Hubs decided that the theme for this year’s STEM Week would be:

STE(A)M Unplugged: Explore your world, Design your world.

Below are seven daily challenges – one for each day of the week. Each is suitable for the whole family, suggests using materials that you already have at home, and doesn’t require you to be on a computer!

Download all of the challenges in English or in Spanish



Paper Tube Raceway
Design a structure that is either freestanding or attached to a wall. This structure will be your raceway for marbles, a car, or another object of your choice.

Download the Monday challenge description in English or Spanish

Image: K. Townsend


Take Something Apart
Take something apart and try to re-purpose the pieces into something new! Some of the items taken apart by last week’s participants include a vacuum cleaner, bicycle wheel, computer, model locomotive, feathered costume, skateboard, and the front suspension of a Jeep.

Download the Tuesday challenge description in English or Spanish


child holds and examines an insect

Notice and Wonder
Find a live animal and observe its characteristics. Write about or draw what you notice. Ask any questions you have about what you see. For more ideas about how to make and record observations of the natural world, see this FAMILY STEM blog post.

Download the Wednesday challenge description in English or Spanish


Build a Paper Structure
Using only paper and tape, create a freestanding structure that is at least one foot high, and can hold a small stuffed animal or toy. Think about what shapes will work best. Could you build a structure that holds a heavy book instead of a stuffed animal? Try it!

Download the Thursday challenge description in English or Spanish


Backyard Scavenger Hunt
What can you find outside? Explore the outdoors by staying in one place and making deep observations, or search for a list of natural items that could be discovered near your home.

Take a walk from your home to a place you’ve never been before, or try making a map for other members of your family to follow.

Download the Friday challenge description in English or Spanish


Create Shadow Art
Line up objects and trace their shadows. Even if the sun is not out, you can still do this activity using a strong light inside. Once you start noticing shadows, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. What makes shadows longer or larger? Write down some thoughts and test your ideas. You can also create a profile portrait or tell a story with a shadow puppet show!

Image: C. Goodwin

Download the Saturday challenge description in English or Spanish


Paper Airplanes and Flight
What is the best way to fold a piece of paper to make a paper airplane fly the highest, the farthest, or the fastest?

For this project, use paper from your recycle bin! If you need more design ideas, consult online resources like Fold N Fly, but then unplug once again to generate more iterations and test your design. Make this challenge meaningful by creating an engaging and real-world context. For example:

“Mary the librarian wants to share a message with a coworker who is shelving books on the other side of the library, 15 feet away. However, they are both practicing social distancing and neither wants to speak loudly and disturb others who are working. Design a paper airplane to help Mary send her message.”

Download the Sunday challenge description in English or Spanish



Each of the daily challenges described above provide opportunities to use different skills and disciplines, just like most real-world activities. Looking back, how did your activity involve science or engineering, the “S” and “E” parts of STEM? Educators have identified eight practices that people use in science and engineering. Did you do any of these things when you were engaged in one of the daily challenges?

Science and Engineering Practices
from the Next Generation Science Standards

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using math and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Think about how you used math during your challenges. For example, did you count, take measurements, make graphs, or make alterations to scale, proportions, or angles? 

How did you use technology in these unplugged challenges? What tools did you use to make structures, dismantle objects, and research new designs?

Finally, you may have noticed the (A) tucked in to the word STEM in this year’s theme. “A” stands for art, which is another subject that can be found throughout disciplines. Did you draw, build, or use other forms of art in your challenges?


No matter how old you are or whether or not you become (or already are) a STEM professional, everyone can participate in activities involving science, technology, engineering, art, and math! Our daily lives are full of STEM, and there will always be opportunities to use STEM to learn more about our world.

Scientists are always wondering about the world around them and those curiosities are what inspire them to learn more. Here’s what scientists from South Slough Reserve were wondering during the 2020 STEM Week What Are You Wondering Wednesday Challenge.



During the 2020 STEM Week Oregon (May 9-17), thousands of families and educators across the state participated in one or more of these challenges, and their activities populated the online STEM Week map. Some participants (including folks from Tillamook, Newport, Florence, and North Bend) even received prizes when their names were drawn at random.

Image: Google Maps 

STEM doesn’t stop when STEM Week is over! Share your family’s activities with the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and the rest of the state any time through social media using the hashtag #STEMWeekOR.

Good luck, and have fun Exploring and Designing Your World!


Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator at Oregon Sea Grant, and is also the Communications Coordinator for the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

STEM Week Oregon is a collaborative effort involving STEM Hubs throughout Oregon.
Learn more at or

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lesson on our website:

Family STEM: Take a Fresh Look at Nature

By Cait Goodwin, Oregon Sea Grant

It can be easy to look around at our familiar surroundings and think “I’ve seen this all before!” But how close are we really looking?


Nature observation is a great activity for families to engage in together because everyone has an opportunity to learn something new. Despite living close to natural areas, we often don’t stop and take time to really notice our surroundings. Many of us cannot name — or even describe — the various plants and animals we walk by every day. Here are some ideas to help you and your family look at nature together, with new attention to detail.


What kind of plant is that, really? How do I know?

Trees and plants are everywhere, and this is especially true in Oregon. So much grows here! But what do you know about the vegetation growing nearby? For example, you may look out the window at a tree across the street and call it, simply, “tree”. But perhaps you know a little more, and call it an “evergreen tree” because you notice it has needles and stays green all year. But is it a shore pine? Douglas fir? Hemlock? Spruce? You might need to go look a little more closely to gather more evidence.

TRY IT – Observation

Once you take time to stop and notice, it’s obvious that there is more than one kind of tree in the neighborhood, more than one kind of “grass” on most lawns, and more than one kind of bird at the feeder. It’s time to explore! Don’t worry about assigning names to organisms you see at this point; you can think about that later.

Here are some ideas to help you and your family make scientific observations together:

  • Start a nature journal for recording your notes, drawings, and questions. All you really need is a blank notebook and a pencil. Here’s a nice description of keeping a journal focused on bird-watching.
  • Create an Observation Circle to help focus your attention. Learn more with this lesson and video from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).
  • Make observations in different locations, and then compare and contrast what you find.

Check out the Oregon Outdoor School website, which provides families with excellent resources that focus on nature observation and nature journaling. Each week they publish a new Nature Observation Activity set in English and Spanish.

A Deeper Dive for Parents and Teachers
* Making Observations from the Lawrence Hall of Science BEETLES Project
* Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills  – from the Pacific Education Institute
* How to Teach Nature Journaling – by John Muir Laws and Emilie Lygren

Observing animals can be a little bit trickier than observing plants because animals might be able to walk or fly away from your area of observation. But the more you practice, the more quickly you can record your observations. Tips for getting started:

  • Focus on slow-moving animals.
  • Take a photo that you can reference or share later.
  • Use an animal webcam to observe animals living far from your home. List of webcams

TRY IT – Identification

Scientists know that categorizing and naming organisms is very useful for understanding species characteristics and how organisms are related to one another. Practically speaking, it’s also helpful to assign names to plants and animals just so everyone knows they are talking about the same organism. There are big differences between the Dungeness crab and the European green crab. While they are both “crabs”, one is a tasty, native species that supports a thriving Oregon fishery, and the other is a smaller, invasive species that causes problems for Oregon’s ecosystems.

Pick one organism that you observed in the first section and focus on finding out its scientific and common name. The careful observations you made earlier will help you make an accurate identification. You may also learn that you need additional information and will need to return to the organism to check something you didn’t think to look at before.

Here are some resources that can help you identify and learn about organisms you might observe near your home:


What can we learn by closely observing nature?

Observing nature can help children and adults develop meaningful connections to the environment, and lead to feelings of stewardship towards local places.

wooden footbridge

The process of taking detailed notes or making an identification requires you to look closely at nature. 

Once you’ve gone through the process of noticing and identifying an organism, you may suddenly start noticing it everywhere!

Identifying organisms models an important practice of science*. Scientists must use evidence to support their conclusions.

Nature observation and journaling are practices enjoyed by people of all ages, and there’s always more to learn. Your journal observations may be kept private, but nature explorers can also work with others to identify species and make new discoveries. 


Connect your observations to a larger network by contributing to an online community science project! iNaturalist is one of the best apps available for sharing your nature observations, and you can download and start using it immediately. You can find additional locally-relevant projects on the Oregon Coast STEM Hub Families page, or search for a project through the large citizen science website SciStart.

What are you waiting for? Turn off your computer and go outside! Tap into your inner naturalist, “see” all the things you were previously missing, and have fun watching your world come alive.

Cait Goodwin is a Special Projects Coordinator at Oregon Sea Grant, and is also the Communications Coordinator for the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lesson on our website:

Family STEM: Pass the STEM, please

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

Engage the whole family in a lively mealtime STEM conversation!

bird's eye view of a dinner table crowded with dishes full of food and peoples hands passing the dishes around
Image credit: Shutterstock

Stress levels elevate when our ability to predict and control daily events erode. Given the unpredictability of life right now, establishing family dinner routines can provide a much-needed sense of security and feeling of belonging.


Dinnertime can also be a great time to support STEM learning! Family STEM conversations can provide insight into how others think, a safe place to try out new ideas, and an opportunity to practice using evidence to support explanations while learning more about STEM concepts and careers.

STEM conversations can be any family discussion where topics related to science, technology, engineering, or math connections are explored.


To get started, we suggest downloading the Family Dinner Projects STEM Conversations Starter Pack, which includes twenty STEM conversation starters such as, “Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”                                                                           

“Would you rather go for a walk in the forest or along the beach? Why?”

Images: C. Goodwin

Here is one of our favorite STEM family conversation starters:


Hitchbot the robot sitting on a table

Have you heard of the hitchhiking travels of Hitchbot the Robot and how he met his untimely demise in Philadelphia after traveling throughout Canada and parts of Europe?                             

Image: Hitchbot in Canada (Wikimedia Commons)

If not, read this story with your family and start a conversation over tonight’s dinner with one or more of the questions below.

  • If you could drive, would you have picked up this hitchhiking robot if you passed him on the road? Why or why not?
  • Do you think we can/should trust robots? Explain.
  • Do you think robots should trust humans?
  • While some people are mourning the demise of Hitchbot, his creators see his journey as a success. What do you think about Hitchbot’s experiences?
  • Imagine you could invent a robot. What would it do?
  • If Hitchbot’s creators tried his journey again, do you think the same kind of thing would happen to him? Why or why not?

Questions provided by the Family Dinner Project

TIPS: 1) Hide a question under each family member’s dinner plate, or 2) pass around a bowl and have everyone randomly pick a question.

Hitchbot the robot sitting at a bar and a man hands him a bottle
Image: Hitchbot in the Netherlands (Wikimedia Commons)


To help keep your STEM conversations going, create a conversation jar to store your conversation starters. Leave a supply of blank strips nearby so family members can add their own ideas as well.

jar full of folded paper
Image credit: Shutterstock

If you have family members who do not live in the home with you, consider scheduling a virtual dinner party. Have each family member take a turn inviting a loved one and connect using Zoom, Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.


Not Just for Dinner
There is no one way to have a STEM dinner conversation. In fact, STEM conversations don’t have to happen at the dinner table. There are many opportunities throughout the day that may work better. Perhaps when going for a walk, washing the dishes, or as part of a bedtime ritual. Find what works for you and your family.

Bon apetit!

Lisa M. Blank is the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website:

Family STEM: Rube Goldberg Machines

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

This post was created during Spring 2020 to help students and families engage in STEM together while staying at home. But you can use these ideas in the article any time!

Example of a Rube Goldberg machine
Image from

Rube Goldberg machines use a series of chain reactions to perform a simple task in the most ridiculously complicated way. In fact, the more complicated the better.

Rube Goldberg cartoon of a self-operating napkin

Why are these contraptions called Rube Goldberg machines? Because the idea began with a man named Rube Goldberg. He was an engineer turned cartoonist whose most famous cartoons chronicled “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butt.”

Image: Rube Goldberg comic
Wikimedia Commons

Today, Rube Goldberg machines are not just whimsical cartoon images, but are required projects in many engineering programs across the US and a growing national obsession. Learn more about Rube Goldberg and how he viewed his cartoons as social commentary.

To join in the fun and support your family in designing and building your own Rube Goldberg machine (and possibly picking up the laundry), follow the steps below.


Spark your family’s interest in building a Rube Goldberg machine by sharing this video about someone who uses one to serve himself a piece of cake.

Challenge your family to watch the video a second time with an eye for the materials and strategies used.

Don’t be intimidated! Your family’s Rube Goldberg machine need not be as complex as The Cake Server. (Also, we don’t recommend using open flames in your design!) Check out these cool builds by young learners:

And these by elementary-aged learners:


What will your machine do? As a team, decide what problem your family would like to solve. If this is a struggle, consider sharing some of the ideas below.

hand bell
  • Place dirty clothes in the hamper
  • Drop soap into a hand
  • Water a plant
  • Turn a light off/on
  • Fill a glass with water
  • Ring a bell

Image used under license from

Depending on the ages of your team members, you can set a minimum and/or maximum number of steps to solve the problem.

FUN FACT: In the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, engineering college students compete to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task. Competing machines must be composed of a minimum of 20 steps and a maximum of 75, and they must complete their run in under two minutes. Teams are permitted to use no more than two air compressors, power cords, or water hoses. Elements of the machine may not travel beyond a 10-square-foot footprint, and machines can be no more than eight feet tall.


  1. Sketch out your machine before building it.
  2. Identify the materials you need. Here is a suggested material list from Tinkerlab.
  3. Start building! Test your designs as you go and make adjustments as necessary.
  4. If your team gets stuck, here are some Rube Goldberg techniques you can try:
(Image used under license from
  • Auto-tilt
  • Trigger
  • Flip Switcher
  • Page Turner
  • Ball Riser
  • Small Nudge

See each technique in action

Image used under license from


Explore how Rube Goldberg machines demonstrate Newton’s Laws.


Newton's Cradle

First Law: An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

In other words, if an object is not moving, it will not start moving by itself. If an object is moving, it will not stop or change direction unless something pushes it.

Image used under license from

F = ma

Second Law: Force is equal to the change in momentum with a change in time. 

In other words, objects will move farther and faster when they are pushed harder.

Image used under license from

Example of Newton's Third Law

Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

In other words, when an object is pushed in one direction, there is always resistance of the same size in the opposite direction.

Image used under license from

To learn more visit:

Challenge your family to find examples in your team’s machine that demonstrate each of Newton’s Laws.

For example, let’s take Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the video below, how can you use Newton’s Third Law to explain why the dominoes failed to fall in certain places?

Answer: Without an action or force, there can be no reaction.


1. Make a video of your creation and share it on the Oregon Coast STEM Facebook Page, or email a YouTube or Vimeo video (set to Public view). We can’t wait to see it!

2. Is your family tired of washing their hands? Give it a new twist by joining a Rube Goldberg Challenge.


Career Connections
Building a Rube Goldberg machine uses many of the same skill sets as a mechanical engineer. Most of the products in your life have been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer, from your shampoo bottles and microwave to your family’s car. If you enjoyed this challenge, check out this Educating Engineers link to earn more about a career in mechanical engineering.

Real-World Connections
What problems have emerged in your recent daily life that could be enhanced by a silly Rube Goldberg solution? Tackle a challenge that is relevant to a current situation, such as:

  • Turning on and off the sink faucet without touching the handle, or 
  • Delivering something to someone quarantined in another room

Lisa M. Blank was the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub 2018-2020.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website: