Information is powerful: Educating K-12 students on wolf behaviors and stakeholder perceptions

The Wonder of Wolves STEM kit laid out, a real wolf behind a fence looks on in the background.
A wolf checks out the “Wonder of Wolves” STEM kit at Wolf Haven International.

A howl in the night could mean many things, particularly in Colorado where wolf reintroduction is underway. It could strike fear into the hiker, cause a rancher to feel threatened and spark curiosity for the scientist.

The College of Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center’s new STEM kit, “Wonder of Wolves,” acknowledges the deep complexities surrounding wolves, both biological and human.

The six-part STEM kit developed in partnership with Wolf Haven International, a Washington state-based wolf sanctuary, covers topics from wolf biology, behaviors and hunting techniques to human stakeholder experiences and feelings about wolves returning to some of their historic range.

“We are excited to begin integrating these kits into our wolf education options,” said Faye Peebles, an education coordinator at Wolf Haven.

Developing a partnership

The partnership between Wolf Haven and the Natural Sciences Education and Outreach Center began back in 2019 when the NSEOC presented at the National Association for Interpretation annual conference.

“Engaging a room full of adult educators with a science task built for middle schoolers is a daunting feat, but the CSU team and their kits did it,” wrote Wolf Haven in their Fall 2022 newsletter. “The kits that we developed explore the scientific method from the angle of ecosystems and wolves.”

The NSEOC’s process to create a STEM kit is always meticulous: interviewing experts, designing activities based on real science, and analyzing data to study a problem. The NSEOC and Wolf Haven met over Zoom on a near-biweekly basis to ensure all the major concepts and different angles were included.

The final kit

The finalized, bilingual STEM kit consists of 15 separate, durable Pelican cases meant to be used by a pair of students. Each kit contains laminated cards, reinforced booklets, and 3D printed items, making them travel-, weather- and child-proof.

The final set of kits was taken up to Wolf Haven in Summer 2022 for demonstrations and training of their education staff and volunteers.

“The day the students were (at Wolf Haven), the wolves were really curious and in the middle of us doing the kit all the wolves started howling at the same time,” said Karina Hassell, the NSEOC’s STEM education specialist, and the project lead on the kit. “It was the perfect experience.”

The final kits are made up of six different, hands-on sections:

  1. The first section models hunting behavior on a 3D printed landscape, demonstrating that wolves respect space between each other and between their prey.
  2. The second activity asks students to match wolves’ different behaviors to their meaning. Not only is this memory game fun, but it helps students recognize some behaviors their pets at home may exhibit. They also have the chance to listen to wolf howls and sounds recorded by Wolf Haven.
  3. At this stage in the kit, students discover that every kit represents a different wolf. They place their wolf at a specific location on a large 3D printed landscape map and can make some initial speculations on the status of their wolf. Is it a lone wolf? A part of a pack? Is it a puppy?
  4. The tracking section replicates how scientists track wolves via their scat. The NSEOC cast hairs in resin from different species that can be found in scat. Each student has samples that are particular to their wolf, and by using a pocket microscope, can identify what that wolf has eaten. A second location is given for students to note wolf movement and behavior.
  5. The fifth section invites students to explore the role of wolves in the ecosystem and introduces different stakeholder perspectives, including those of ranchers, hikers and townspeople. Students put down a third mark on the map and can see a pattern in their wolf’s behaviors.
  6. The final section takes into consideration all the data collected through the different activities and offers group discussion opportunities about wolves and people sharing the landscape.

In between each of these sections students are given time to take notes and make sketches in their science notebooks, an activity central to developing critical thinking and curiosity among students.

Kits for the Front Range

After dropping off their first set of kits at Wolf Haven this summer, the NSEOC built another set to be loaned out to teachers along the Front Range starting this month.

“It was very exciting to research and develop this engaging kit that involves such an iconic symbol for the U.S.,” said Hassell. “Information is just so powerful.”