Following Their Questions: The Dead Horse Lab

The activity that became “The Dead Horse Lab” didn’t start out that way. It actually wasn’t intentional. It started out as a “dead body” problem in our calculus text, similar to this one.

My students asked questions: “Is this accurate in real life? Does this really work?” Instead of answering these questions like I usually would, I said: “That’s an interesting question, how could we find out?”

This led to some VERY INTERESTING discussion which then led me to establish one parameter: We weren’t going to kill any creature just to test this theory, even if Emily didn’t really like her cat. One of my students said his uncle works with a vet and it might be possible to get access to a euthanized animal. We decided this might be a possibility.

It turned out that the vet was scheduled to euthanize a horse. We got permission from the vet and horse owner and made arrangements for the euthanized horse to be brought to school for students to collect data. Then my students had to decide what information they would need to collect to answer their question because I had no lesson plan for this, we were in uncharted territory for me as a calculus teacher. Students decided what data we would need to collect:

  • time of death
  • body temperature of the horse at various time intervals
  • air temperature.

Students also conducted research at home and brought back some interesting facts:

  • Horses have a normal body temperature of 100-101.5 degrees.
  • The most accurate way to take the temperature of a dead body is internally in the liver.
  • When laying on its side, a horse’s liver is about 3 inches beneath the rib cage.

Students gathered a scalpel from the FFA teacher and large thermometers from the science lab, assigned data collection tasks, and had their parents sign permission slips to avoid weird explanations after the fact. When the day arrived, students collected their data. Students recorded body temperatures at multiple times from multiple locations (internally in the liver and rectally) and air temperatures. Then we began our analysis.

What did my students learn from this?

  • First, IT DIDN’T WORK. The data they collected didn’t accurately predict the time of death, and our book was WRONG. My students learned that real life mathematical modeling can be MESSY and not as simple as a textbook story problem. It also lead to more research, where students learned about founder and the possible effects of inflammation on body temperature.
  • Second, they learned how to use mathematics to test their OWN question, not just mine or one presented by the text. I hope that’s a skill they carry through life.

What did I learn from this?

  • Real modeling is MESSY. Don’t be afraid, do it anyway.
  • You can learn more from the “failure” than the perfect lesson.
  • Follow THEIR questions! Kids ask questions because they are interested. If you want them to be interested in mathematics, make time to investigate the questions they find interesting.

The Dead Horse Lab may not be an activity that you want to recreate for your students. 🙂 But I do encourage you to listen to the questions your students ask and to follow them when possible.

2 thoughts on “Following Their Questions: The Dead Horse Lab

  1. I remember being the one to take the liver temp for that! Those scalpels were NOT sharp, it took forever to cut in there! And now I’m getting a PhD in microbiology and there is a heavy mouse-work component, not so bad after working with a horse!

    Also, the equation was thrown off because the compound they used to euthanize the horse raised its body temp.

    Oh, high school calculus. That was a good class!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s