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Instructor Randy Frederickson shows off two owl pellets at Willmar Middle School. Seventh-grade students are dissecting the pellets in class. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

Willmar students experience 'real science' in hands-on exploration

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Computers and modern technology are important tools in school science labs.

They allow students to accurately track changes in temperature, for instance. Things like virtual frog dissection save money.

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But get-your-hands-dirty scientific exploration is still popular with kids.

In the past week, seventh-grade science students at Willmar Middle School did a little of that when they dissected owl pellets.

Owls produce their pellets after eating a good meal. They swallow their prey whole. Once their stomachs are done digesting the small animals they've eaten, they regurgitate pellets, which are akin to a cat's hairball.

The whole process might sound gross, but it's a valuable learning tool about the predator-prey relationship for a seventh-grade science class.

Students in teacher Randy Frederickson's class at Willmar Middle School spent several class periods learning about the pellets. They learned how owl pellets are produced and got a hands-on lesson about what's inside.

Many of the students said they had been excited to find out they would be dissecting the pellets. Some were introduced to owl pellets in fourth grade, but the lessons taught by Frederickson and Lisa Ruter at the Middle School went deeper.

The pellets, hard on the outside and full of tightly bundled dark gray fur inside, are also full of bones that the owls' stomachs don't digest.

The students, working in groups of three or four, cracked open their pellets and used picks and tweezers to sort hair from bone.

They found tiny skulls, less than an inch long, sometimes with sharp front teeth still attached.

Leg bones, slender ribs and vertebrae were in there, too.

The last step in their work was to use sketches of animal bones to identify what animal they might have come from and to reassemble as much of a skeleton as they could.

They glued the skeletons to sheets of paper. Since each pellet is different, some students found more bones than others. They shared from one group to another so everyone could come close to completing their models.

Frederickson allowed them to draw in some missing parts, as the miniscule foot bones and claws can be hard to find.

Ariana Tamez, 13, said the unit helped them learn "about the bones in our body and how they relate to animals."

Ariana said she was happy to do the pellet dissection, as she had missed the owl pellet class in fourth grade.

A group of three boys on the other side of the room were a little disappointed in their experience. "I thought we would find parts of animals," said Zach Rende, 13. "I was hoping for an eyeball."

Added Taylor Drogosch-Garberich, 12, "I wanted to see the brain and all that stuff." Brandon Fadness, 12, nodded.

"It's hard to try to do it without breaking bones," Brandon said.

For some others, the experience was met with less enthusiasm. "I don't like touching stuff like that," said Malena Groothuis, 13. "It's fun, but I wouldn't do it for a living."

Frederickson said the class provides a good transition from the study of the human skeleton to a unit on the predator/prey relationship. The students were able to find and identify mouse bones that looked similar to and had the same names as human bones.

The unit also fits nicely into the state standards for what students should take away from seventh-grade science, he said.

The owl pellets come mostly from barn owls and are ordered from science supply companies.

Barn owls used to be common in southwestern Minnesota, Frederickson said, but they have died off because poisons and a large cat population took away their food sources.

"I really like this lab," Frederickson said. "It's real science, and real science right now; it's kind of a treasure hunt."

He watched as his next class came into the room and went right to work sorting through fur and bones. The soft conversations in the room were all about the owl pellets and skeletons.

"That's what happens when you're doing something hands-on," he said.

They found tiny skulls, less than an inch long, sometimes with sharp front teeth still attached.

Leg bones, slender ribs and vertebrae were in there, too.

The last step in their work was to use sketches of animal bones to identify what animal they might have come from and to reassemble as much of a skeleton as they could.

They glued the skeletons to sheets of paper. Since each pellet is different, some students found more bones than others. They shared from one group to another so everyone could come close to completing their models.

Frederickson allowed them to draw in some missing parts, as the miniscule foot bones and claws can be hard to find.

Ariana Tamez, 13, said the unit helped them learn "about the bones in our body and how they relate to animals."

Ariana said she was happy to do the pellet dissection, as she had missed the owl pellet class in fourth grade.

A group of three boys on the other side of the room were a little disappointed in their experience. "I thought we would find parts of animals," said Zach Rende, 13. "I was hoping for an eyeball."

Added Taylor Drogosch-Garberich, 12, "I wanted to see the brain and all that stuff." Brandon Fadness, 12, nodded.

"It's hard to try to do it without breaking bones," Brandon said.

For some others, the experience was met with less enthusiasm. "I don't like touching stuff like that," said Malena Groothuis, 13. "It's fun, but I wouldn't do it for a living."

Frederickson said the class provides a good transition from the study of the human skeleton to a unit on the predator/prey relationship. The students were able to find and identify mouse bones that looked similar to and had the same names as human bones.

The unit also fits nicely into the state standards for what students should take away from seventh-grade science, he said.

The owl pellets come mostly from barn owls and are ordered from science supply companies.

Barn owls used to be common in southwestern Minnesota, Frederickson said, but they have died off because poisons and a large cat population took away their food sources.

"I really like this lab," Frederickson said. "It's real science, and real science right now; it's kind of a treasure hunt."

He watched as his next class came into the room and went right to work sorting through fur and bones. The soft conversations in the room were all about the owl pellets and skeletons. "That's what happens when you're doing something hands-on," he said.

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