Fifth Graders Explore Animal Cognition in Virtual Visit with Expert

Fifth Grade Science teacher Jessica Clingman has created a powerful, months-long science curriculum for PDS fifth graders that deeply investigates cognition and its central importance in humans, animals, and even in plants. The cumulative experience imparts lifelong lessons on learning about learning, reaping long-term benefits for students in their approach to academic study and in understanding their own behavior.

As students began their journey into animal cognition, Clingman recently arranged a virtual visit for her two Fifth Grade classes and MS Science teacher Annemarie Strange's section with Dr. Steve Ross, an expert in chimpanzee behavior and ape cognition. The Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, Dr. Ross has spent his career conducting animal research, including studies used to help design the award-winning Regenstein Center for African Apes. While he continues to research chimpanzees, gorillas and Japanese macaques, his primary focus is improving the welfare of chimpanzees through scientific efforts that inform positive animal welfare policies. 

Dr. Stephen Ross of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago

At the outset of the Zoom meeting, Ms. Clingman introduced Dr. Ross as “one of the world’s leading experts on chimpanzees. In fact, he got to go to Turkey last month because Jane Goodall needed his help!” Dr. Ross began by discussing his current research at the zoo, which includes cognitive sequencing in chimpanzees and gorillas. To observe how well chimps and gorillas can remember different sequences and perform certain sets of actions, Dr. Ross and his research team use touch screens with the animals. He shared a video of a chimp, Ayumu, memorizing the random placement of numbers on a screen and being able to touch, in order, where each number was after it disappeared. Kids were amazed at the speed with which the chimps could recall and sequence numbers.

When students exclaimed, “the chimp has a better memory than me,” Dr. Ross responded, “in fact, no human can beat Ayumu in this task. He can do things that humans just can't do. In some things chimps are smarter than humans and in some things humans are better. One of the things chimps are really really good at is short-term memory.”

Through his research, Dr. Ross’s goal is for the chimps “to really communicate with us so that we can understand more about them, not just what they are good at. We want to know what they are thinking and how to better care for them." He is dedicated to research that helps us understand whether animals think the same way as humans or if they think differently than us.

Jessica Clingman's 5th grade class Zoom

Dr. Ross then discussed his work with Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the largest chimp sanctuary in the world, which continues to attract more chimps in need of a safe environment. The students had the opportunity to ask Dr. Ross questions, including what happens if they run out of space since they are already home to 315 chimps. He explained that the sanctuary recently built an additional forest space so they can now house up to 350 chimpanzees. Another curious student wanted to know how they ensure that the chimps can't escape. Dr. Ross told them about the professional rock climbers they brought in to test whether they could climb over the 25-foot walls (they couldn’t!). Throughout the session, students interacted with Ross by virtual “thumbs-up” check-ins to confirm questions and gauge their understanding.

For the past two years, PDS fifth graders have been learning about Chimp Haven and have developed efforts to help support their work through bake sales and fundraisers. This past summer, the connection between Chimp Haven and PDS grew even stronger when Ms. Clingman was invited to help Chimp Haven develop and enhance their virtual lessons for educators. Ms. Clingman worked remotely with the committee to build out engaging virtual lessons on chimpanzees that focus on observational learning to help understand chimp cognition.

In addition to utilizing the lessons Ms. Clingman helped develop for Chimp Haven, her class will also meet virtually with Dr. Raven Jackson-Jewett, D.V.M., a vet from Chimp Haven, and will go on a virtual field trip to Chimp Haven later in the year. You can read more about Ms. Clingman's summer work with Chimp Haven in a recent news post.  

Photos (from top): Dr. Steve Ross on Zoom and in a photo from his online biography; a screenshot from Dr. Ross's recent virtual visit with PDS 5th Grade students and Ms. Clingman.

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