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So Whose Cow is in the Field?

By Ronald Cefalo

An original activity designed to stimulate an understanding of genetics in the rural classroom.

Type of Activity:

  • hands-on

  • inquiry lab

  • group/cooperative learning

  • community outreach/off-site activity

  • parental involvement

Target Audience:

  • Prime target is GENETICS

  • Secondary target - biology or advanced AP biology


Notes for the teacher:

One of the most difficult and boring sections in many biology courses is the ones connected with genetics and heredity. Since many of my students came from ranching backgrounds I decided to redo the genetics unit that I teach. I decided to make the units practical and related to the functions found on the typical ranch. The American Breeders Association (which services the ranches by artificially inseminating their cattle) helped me in identifying certain cattle strains common to our locale. They were instrumental in identifying traits which could be easily identified from a field count. Breeding records (pedigrees) were made available to study and determine the blood line of the cattle under study. Study groups were made for the purpose of taking field counts on each of the local ranches. "So whose cow is in the field" was an attempt to trace and count different generations of cattle in our area. I had expected some interest since I had geared the entire experience to the real world of biology. What I got was unbelievable. Parents got involved, ranchers talking to kids, non-ranching students were being instructed by students who lived on ranches. The vet, the rancher, the breeder, the student and the parents were all sharing their knowledge about genetics. The unit evaluation demonstrated not only a clearer understanding of genetics but also an indepth interest. It ended up being the best unit I had ever had in Biology. The real dividends came as parents and students were now coming to me to offer help and materials. THE VITAL LINK HAD BEEN FORMED. If you wish to do this activity I would first recommend finding a source in your community that you can create an alliance with (American Kennel Club, American Breeder Association or even a seed company). If you don't have cattle use another animal such as horses, dogs, cats or even seeds or plants as source. Plan what type of reporting and field work that you want to have the students do.



This activity is a "hands-on" activity to involve the students in a realistic study of genetic traits associated with their life style and environment. It is designed to involve parents, professionals, and the student in a learning partnership. Genetics is the subject and the students background is the playing field with the players being the students and their contacts.

Materials needed:

The materials needed for conducting this lab activity:

  • resource for genetic study (professional organization or company to help with your selected topic)

  • a source for pedigree information that is necessary for the field study

  • a selected organism to study-pick one of the students that have an interest in and can document blood lines

  • a plan on how to get parents and students involved in the learning process

Procedure/Description of Project:

The procedure used to complete this activity:

  • state objectives to be covered

  • identify professional help available in students locale

  • outline a project of field study with the help of the professionals that have been identified

  • outline the parameters and expectations of the activity and the required report. This should also include the format that you choose to use in reporting. In my activity I required that students show a pedigree, the genetic link, the chart to support their observations and the raw field data. I also asked them to turn in their field notes and notes from interviews.

  • form class into field study groups with expectations fully explained.

  • stand back and watch the kids dig in, help give advice but do no do it for them. (Remember it is important to tailor your activity to your unique area)

Method of Evaluation:

The final report delivered by the student was evaluated and graded. In the grading of the project areas that were checked included: basic research, field data, notes taken in the field, interviews with ranchers or breeder and recommendation or conclusions. Each student was responsible for field data to be included in his summary report. They were to illustrate their results using any method of statistical analysis. The unit test also demonstrated significant understanding of the genetics principles.


In areas of the country where cattle or horse breeders are not readily available the use of the American Kennel Club (AKC) might be helpful in attaining records or pedigrees that can be adapted to the above activity. Dog or cat shows are excellent places where genetic studies can occur. Where these references are not available try using human genetics ie genealogy of the students and determine the number of traits such as baldness, webbed digits, color blindness or other sex-linked traits.

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