Student Exploration of an Online Database to Discover Patterns in Natural History

Author Information
Phil Myers, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Tanya Dewey, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Patricia Jones, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
George S. Hammond III, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Roger Espinosa, University of Michigan
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
The College of New Jersey, Ewing, New Jersey
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Radford University, Radford, Virginia
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

The Animal Diversity Web (ADW, takes advantage of its large, structured database to provide a query tool that allows undergraduate biology students at any institution to discover natural history patterns on their own. This query tool, Quaardvark (, is freely available online and provides access to both ADW data and external databases. Quaardvark currently provides the only access to flexible, structured data for authentic inquiry in undergraduate organismal biology courses. Students can query a wide variety of natural history data, such as masses, lifespans, behaviors, habitats, diets, and conservation status. Also available for querying are images of specimens, anatomies, and behaviors to illustrate patterns, such as the relationship between diet and cranial or tooth morphology and relationships between social behavior and sexual dimorphism. The availability of this resource online makes it available as an important resource for institutions with fewer resources, such as a lack of teaching collections for organismal biology courses.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The Animal Diversity Web (ADW) has developed a querying tool that allows students to engage in authentic inquiry experiences in their organismal biology courses. This tool is built on the ADW structured database, which is the largest animal natural history database online and the only one with data structured to permit flexible querying. The Quaardvark query site ( has been developed, tested, and refined over the last five years and tested in courses at over 24 institutions, representing a variety of courses, from introductory biology to advanced zoology.

We invite interested users to visit the site to explore its potential. Activities that have been implemented in classrooms are available on the site and offer a useful starting point for considering teaching opportunities in natural history exploration ( This query tool makes a valuable contribution to any organismal biology course at any institution with online access.  Quaardvark expands authentic inquiry opportunities for institutions with limited research and education resources, both nationally and internationally. We continue to look for opportunities to reach out to underrepresented audiences and provide effective and accessible activities that enhance coursework.

The ADW team has reached out to other organizations that maintain animal natural history data. We are discussing possibilities for making external data available to our Quaardvark query tool. The ideal option would be for external data structure to be mapped to ADW data structure so that searching external sites can be automated. However, few external sites have structured data that would allow this. As an alternative, we have received datasets in Excel or csv formats from other organizations. We then map data elements to ADW structure and add them to our database. We have successfully uploaded conservation status data from the IUCN Red List project,  and longevity data from the AnAge database (, and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research Longevity records ( We are currently mapping content from the Youtheria mammal database (, NatureServe data (, the Avian Vocalizations Center (, and the Body Mass of Late Quaternary Mammals database (

This ADW: Quaardvark project enhances the information resources available for organismal biology education at the undergraduate level. The query tool and its ability to harvest external data is a significant innovation. The ADW is sharing these developments with other undergraduate inquiry organizations to encourage new, collaborative projects. The ADW is one of the few database projects that has successfully made complex data available for querying. This is especially significant in light of the renewed focus on using real data in classrooms (AAAS, 2011, PULSE, 2012).

Participating faculty will also add to information resources available for organismal biology education. Activities developed for their courses are shared online via ADW: Quaardvark. We have encouraged participating faculty to publish activities they develop on respected and peer-reviewed education resources, such as TIEE ( In addition, participating faculty are encouraged to publish activities in other formats. James Ryan (Hobart and William Smith Colleges) is developing a chapter on Quaardvark for his vertebrate biology manual and is considering adding a similar chapter to a mammalogy manual.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

There have been two phases of research on the effectiveness of the Quaardvark query tool. An initial research phase focused on eight faculty at eight institutions. The second research phase is currently being implemented with 22 faculty at 20 institutions. Both student and faculty assessments were used in each research phase. Students and faculty found the use of Quaardvark queries in their courses to be a very valuable addition. Students were engaged and energized by the opportunity to interact with and explore real natural history data. Despite occasional technical problems or issues with missing or erroneous data, students and faculty remained enthusiastic about incorporating Quaardvark queries in their learning experiences.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 


The ADW Quaardvark tool is freely available online worldwide. The query and reporting functions are available to any user without a login. Users can also register in order to take advantage of a personal “backpack” space, or file saving space. Registration is freely available on the site and is open to all users. ADW staff are available to help users with troubles via an email link available on the site.
Complete help materials are available on the site, including tutorial videos and written descriptions. Activities developed by instructors and implemented in classrooms are available for use on the Quaardvark site and include complete instructions for using them.
The ADW team continues to do outreach to faculty at different institutions and at educational conferences and workshops internationally to disseminate the results of this research and increase awareness of the potential of Quaardvark use in courses.

Faculty Satisfaction:

Faculty participating in research on the effectiveness of Quaardvark express satisfaction with the opportunities it provides for student inquiry. Quaardvark is exceptionally flexible, so faculty can customize queries for their students  so that they are suitable for their courses and syllabi (and students can customize queries based on interest and specific questions).
A wide variety of courses can employ Quaardvark queries, including any course that uses natural history to illustrate patterns in nature. This includes any taxon-specific course, such as mammalogy or ornithology, and evolution, behavior, ecology, conservation, and introductory biology courses. Quaardvark queries have been implemented successfully in community colleges, private liberal arts and teaching colleges, EPSCoR funded institutions, and research universities. Quaardvark has also been successfully implemented in non-majors, introductory courses and higher level courses intended for majors.
Faculty that also employ writing taxon accounts in their courses suggest that these activities are exceptionally complementary, allowing students to both contribute to and use the ADW database.

Informal feedback from faculty who used the materials they generated indicate they are generally pleased with how the activities unfolded. Discussions suggest a few possible best practices.

- Making sure students are familiar with the data as structured in a species account is quite beneficial – either if they have already written species accounts, if they have assignments to read some before doing Quaardvark-based activities, or if they follow up on results by reading them.
- Using Quaardvark more than once (even if earlier experiences are quite structured) allows for a gradual expansion of skills, which makes it possible for students to do more sophisticated research.
Faculty noted distinct differences in what activities were possible depending on how familiar students are with both content and statistical analysis. One faculty member mentioned she would be able to use this experience to initiate curricular reform in her department (she was able to identify statistical skills students needed to be able to derive the concepts they were being taught,). Some faculty shared creative approaches that others are eager to try. (For example, one professor would turn to Quaardvark to answer questions that students asked during lecture.)

Learning Effectiveness:

In our latest implementation, in winter 2012, 429 students at 8 institutions (listed above) completed assessments. Institutions involved included one community college, one historically Black college, and one institution with a primarily-hispanic enrollment. Students were asked to rate their levels of confidence, knowledge, and skill for four competencies that the ADW/Quaardvark activities and website are intended to promote. These competencies were chosen for the survey because they are important in developing and demonstrating scientific reasoning skills. Preliminary results indicate increases in average ratings of their knowledge, and skill in each of the four competencies.  


The ADW has been online and continuously growing since 1995. ADW data is added as part of taxon account contributions from courses at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Courses at dozens of institutions have students contribute taxon accounts as a critical writing in the discipline experience. Taxon accounts are contributed through an online template that acts to guide student research and synthesis and structures data and text as it enters the ADW database. ADW taxon accounts, especially well-illustrated higher taxon accounts, are used in organismal biology courses throughout the world to teach about diversity and evolution.
The ADW continues to expand its impact through various education and outreach projects, such as a long-standing collaboration with the Center for Essential Science ( and its K-12 biodiversity and climate change education projects. The ADW also strong collaborative relationships as well with the Encyclopedia of Life (  AmphibiaWeb ( , and a wide variety of other education and outreach projects.
The ADW is one of the largest natural history databases online and represents one of the largest outreach programs of the University of Michigan. The ADW serves between 2 and 4 million pages of content to 300,000 site visitors monthly, with up to 70% of those visitors coming for education purposes. The ADW retains a commitment from the University of Michigan to sustain its servers for a period of seven years beyond the termination of grant support.

Student Satisfaction:

Quaardvark has been implemented in over 20 institutions and participating students express enthusiasm in assessments. Dealing with missing or difficult data is sometimes expressed as a frustration, but other faculty and students
Students find the relatively complex query interface easy to use and navigate.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

Students and instructors require access to the internet via computers or mobile devices. Access to simple statistical or graphing applications, such as Microsoft Excel, is also useful.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

There are no additional costs beyond access to the internet via computers or mobile devices.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Tanya Dewey
Email this contact:
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Phil Myers
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