Faculty Experiences - Daniel Blumstein

Blumstein - photo jwatcherDANIEL BLUMSTEIN

Organismic Biology, Ecology, and Evolution

Interview Topics
What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?

Analyze data
Class discussion
Exercises & assignments
Research projects
Show what you're talking about
Student presentations
Thinking like a researcher


JWatcher (software)

Professional tools



Giving Students Professional Tools

In the lab and discussion-type sections of large classes, I aim to give students the skills and tools to actually understand how science is done. . . .giving students the tools to quantify [animal] behavior directly, I think, helps solidify their perceptions about what they're seeing. . .

I want to open peoples' eyes to how they look at animals, and how they understand the diversity of the behavior. I want to get people jazzed about what I do, and give them new tools to think about common behaviors they might encounter on a daily basis.
I try to make the large classes--the big talking-head-type lectures--a bit more active by giving the students a problem to solve. I use a lot of videos and play sounds of animals, to illustrate the phenomena that we're talking about. It's one thing to talk about, say, thermo-regulatory huddling, or grouping to avoid predators, but if you can see penguins bunching up because a leopard-seal's swimming around, then the leopard seal goes away and the penguins all jump in the water together, you can get a better grasp of the behavior. In the evaluations the students say the videos give them a better understanding of the ideas we're discussing.

In the lab and discussion-type sections of large classes, I aim to give students the skills and tools to actually understand how science is done. I like to get them thinking analytically, so they learn to critique published papers, and develop skills in collecting and analyzing data. That's where JWatcher, the software I developed, comes into play, because it makes analysis of recorded animal behavior more concrete. I can use graphs to show how certain animals do more or less of this or that as a function of some aspect of their existence, but giving students the tools to quantify a behavior directly, I think, helps solidify their perceptions about what they're seeing and allows them to read the literature a bit more critically.

I teach a very small field-biology course--15 students--where students work in teams, and learn how to do research by choosing a project that interests them. They write proposals, and I teach them how to collect and analyze data using JWatcher. Then, they essentially get dumped in the field--the last two courses took students to Australia--and they are expected to try to make their projects work. They don't get graded on whether the project works or not; they get graded on the theory, their effort, their write-up, and their oral presentation of their project. Some of the projects have led to publishable papers. It's very intensive, and very hands on, but it's also very rewarding, because as an instructor, I actually see the penny dropping; I see students really learning about how behavioral biologists work.

JWatcher was originally developed when I was based at a university in Australia. Two colleagues and I wanted a program for quantifying animal behavior, but we didn't think the software available at that time really worked. So we decided to develop our own program. We wanted to make it freely available and to write it in Java, so anyone could use it. JWatcher is now used all over the world by professional researchers in animal behavior, neuroscientists, psychologists, human factors experts, and anthropologists.

When I came to UCLA I began putting together

educational exercises to accompany JWatcher

. The exercises include videos of animal behavior, sample files, a series of open-ended questions, and a procedure for the students to follow, to begin teaching the basics about quantifying behavior. The most elementary exercise guides them, in a cook-book way, through the process of observing the behavior, scoring it, and asking simple questions such as, are marmots more vigilant than cows? I've posted the exercises on the web, and instructors in animal behavior, psychology, primatology, and field ecology from other universities have adopted them and use them in their teaching. At UCLA I estimate about 1000 students have worked through the JWatcher labs.

I try to integrate JWatcher in my teaching so as to accommodate a wide range of computer skills. Because the time students require to complete an exercise may range from 30 minutes to a full two hours, we have them do the lab first, then the TAs collect everyone's data files, summarize them, and distribute them. Later, we get the students to discuss the results together. TAs pose questions, so that the lab is a springboard for a more open-ended discussion about quantifying behavior.

We recently received an NIH grant to add more bells and whistles to the program, and to develop more educational materials. We're adding contingency analyses. The current version of JWatcher allows you to ask, how much time do you spend walking? How much time do you spend chewing gum? Soon you'll be able to ask, given that you're walking, how much time do you spend chewing gum?

We're adding features to allow batch-processing of multiple files, so when you go out and score ten different animals, then JWatcher will combine all the files and give you a summary statistic. That's going to be useful in teaching.

We ultimately want to add the ability to integrate video directly with the program. We're also adding abilities to do sequence analyses, which will make the program more useful for researchers in other fields. Sociologists and psychologists look at interactions--at interpersonal relationships-- to ask questions such as, what behavior follows the event when a husband raises his voice when talking with his wife?

Ultimately I'll write a book- I provisionally called Analyzing Behavior the JWatcher Way. The main philosophy of our software is that once you 'score' a behavioral observation, it's very easy to analyze it many different ways. For instance, JWatcher is particularly useful when you're running an experiment. Say you observe an animal doing something for a baseline period of time, and you give it a stimulus of some sort--for example, the sound of a predator--then note what happens. The advantage is, you can score something once, but analyze it many different ways. It's a really useful way of thinking about how to explore and quantify behavior.

Oral Interview, March 2004