High school biology
Do rats laugh? Do dogs pretend? Can birds use tools? While it has traditionally been assumed that animals are not capable of thoughts, emotions, or anything comparable to human intelligence, researchers working with animals from rats and bats to wolves and whales now have an impressive and growing body of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that strongly challenges those earlier suppositions.
This course surveys the fascinating field of cognitive ethology—the study of animal minds—and explores questions of what animals think and feel, the complexity of their thought, and the depth of their emotions. Students examine cutting-edge research from fields such as cognitive neuroscience, psychology, endocrinology, and ethology that support the theoretical ideas first proposed by Darwin, who is often credited as the first scientist to seriously study the emotional lives of animals. Darwin’s ideas were later advanced by Donald Griffen, the “father of cognitive ethology,” whose big questions about animal consciousness laid the groundwork for the explosion of research we see today. What we are learning about animal sentience is transforming our understanding of non-human animals, creating impetus for new research into how they experience the world, each other, and possibly themselves.
In this seminar-style class, students read and discuss the research of ethologists such as Marc Bekoff, Konrad Lorenz, James Gould, Jane Goodall, Franz De Waal, and E.O Wilson. These pioneering researchers fundamentally changed our understanding of the animal mind, shedding new light on the extraordinary and diverse abilities of our fellow species to learn, problem-solve, use tools, express emotions, and even mourn their dead. What’s more, we are learning that animals communicate complex information in ways we could never have imagined.
Field excursions to locations such as the Central Park Zoo, the Wild Bird Fund, and the Wolf Conservation Center offer participants an opportunity to observe animal behaviors up close, emulate observation techniques used by scientists in the field, and speak to experts about their research. These first-hand experiences provide context for the material covered in class, and give rise to important questions and rich, stimulating discussions. Students also have an opportunity to explore the broad array of academic and career paths that relate to cognitive ethology, including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, conservation biology, psychology, philosophy and ethics, cognitive neuroscience, science writing, and animal law.
Course requirement include assigned readings of scientific literature and excerpts from books on animal cognition, daily participation in class and small-group discussions, and a final project that demonstrates students’ understanding of the course concepts and content.
Laptops are recommended but not required for this course.
Michelle Ashkin is the Co-Director of Education at the Wild Bird Fund, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center in Manhattan. Her passion to protect wildlife has taken her on expeditions to Hawaii to study damaged coral reefs, Baja to collect data on endangered sea turtles, and New Jersey to study migratory shorebirds and threatened bobcats. Her mission—to inspire others to advocate for animals and the environment—has been the driving force behind her work. Michelle was a founding teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies, the first of its kind in New York, and later went on to become the founding principal of the Academy for Conservation and the Environment. Her interest in animal sentience has inspired her to delve into the science of ethology, and to incorporate humane education into all of her curricula. Michelle holds a master’s degree in education from New York University and a master’s in conservation biology from Columbia University. She is a licensed New York State wildlife rehabilitator and advocates for animals through legislative change.