Cool Cafe

Simple Rules to Move By

Simple Rules to Move By

Coordinated Movement in Groups of Animals and Teenagers

If you’ve ever watched a flock of starlings fly through the air or a school of fish swim together, you may have wondered how all of the animals were able to move together and maintain such a simple and tight formation. At our May 3, 2013 Open Minds Café in Raleigh, NC, Dr. Roland Kays, Director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center, spoke about how scientists study the movement of groups of animals

A bait ball of teens! Can you find the predator? Photo by Alan Neifeld.
A bait ball of teens! Can you find the predator? Photo by Alan Neifeld.

and what this research can tell us. According to Dr. Kays, “new research on animal movement is revealing how the amazing coordinated movements of animal groups, such as schools of fish or flocks of birds, are an emergent property of each individual following a few simple decision rules.” In his presentation, he covered a variety of studies on animal movements, from ants in a Petri dish being tracked with fluorescent markers to his own research on the movements of a group of radio-collared baboons in Kenya. After entertaining the teens with stories from the field and introducing them to the concept of group movement in animals being caused by individuals all following the same set of rules, he moved the audience out to an open area to demonstrate this concept with them.

Hands-on activities:

Dr. Kays had been working on an idea for an activity to demonstrate how flocking behavior works before we approached him about doing an Open Minds Café, so this presentation was mutually beneficial – he had an audience to try his activity with, and we didn’t have to come up with an activity! In the first round of the activity, he told the teens to circulate in the open area (we used the lobby of the Nature Research Center, right next door to the café where the presentation was given) while following a few rules: always keep moving, never get separated from the group by more than an arm’s length without at least one companion, no holding hands, and no communication. The last two rules ensured that the movement that occurred was a result of everyone doing the same thing and was not staged in a way that it would not be in nature. After the teens got a hang of this, other complications were introduced in the rounds that followed: in order to win, you had to follow the same rules as before, PLUS get a sticker from each of three locations (representing food) which would run out of food every five stickers, AND avoid predation by two hungry predators (museum staff who ran around tagging their prey). This activity allowed the teens to get up and run around while they practiced a major concept presented in the talk, and when asked after three rounds if they wanted to do one more, they gave a resounding “yes!” More instructions are in the document below, and the video of the activity to shows just what an effective demonstration it was of flocking and schooling behavior.

Access resources:

 Video of Dr. Kays’ Open Minds Café – Livestream video produced by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, with all presentation slides by Dr. Roland Kays

Flocking Activity – activity developed by Dr. Roland Kays, instructions written by Cat Early at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences

Video of a practice run of the activity – video by Dr. Roland Kays (this was a practice run we did with staff – now imagine it with 30 teenagers!) See the link here for the 30 teens!

Note: These resources are intended to inspire others presenting a Teen Science Café. Please contact the creators of the resources if you have any questions about their appropriate uses.