Cowboy Science

Your cowboy classroom theme can include plenty of great related science activities.

We’re not advocating “cowboy science” — quick and dirty estimations. There’s a place for this kind of scientific thinking, but there are also plenty of science standards that fit right into a study of the old west.

You can certainly study the plants and animals of the Wild West, or the physics of the lasso, but here are a couple of our favorite cowboy science connections.

Weather

Cowboys, and all the people who lived in the Old West, were strongly affected by the weather. The climate in the Western states was very different from what the people from the East were used to. Cowboys on a cattle drive or out on the range were at the mercy of the weather.

Online resources:

  • The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has a fine Wild Weather unit makes a great introduction to a lot of weather concepts, including temperature, precipitation, storms, and weather measurement. There are reproducibles with assessments. The unit is designed for grades 4-8.
  • A Woolaroc Museum lesson plan includes two cowboy songs, both of which discuss the cowboy’s experience of weather. There’s also a lot of basic information about the life and work of a cowboy. Find PowerPoints to go with the lesson at the museum’s teacher page. The writing assignment is to write a resume for a jobseeker wanting to become a ranch hand, but you could instead create a comparison between the weather experience of a cowboy in the 1870s and the way your students experience weather. Identify the technology that makes the difference.
  • Since cowboys didn’t have air conditioning, fireplaces, fans, or even roofs over their heads during much of their working life, how did they cope with the weather? Form small groups and give each group one piece of cowboy gear to research:

How did these items help cowboys handle the weather? Hats were designed to protect cowboys from the sun and wind. Bandanas (or a silk scarf, just as often) helped protect from cold, sun, wind, and dust. Chaps protected cowboys from cold as well as win and animals. Cowboy boots were meant for riding, but they also helped with mud. An article about cowboy clothing collected from contemporary accounts makes interesting reading.

Technology

Historians aren’t sure how many working cowboys there were at the height of the cattle drives in the 1870s and 1880s. Estimates range from 12,000 (not many more that there are today)  to 40,000. There were few women in the group. About 15% were African-American and 20% were Hispanic. Almost all were young. They worked 15 hours a day, and much of that time was spent in hard physical labor, so most cowboys were not able to continue this work beyond their 30s. The average cowboy earned about a dollar a day, plus room and board — such as it was.

The age of the great cattle drives ended when the railroads provided a better way to move cattle across the country.

Technology ended the cowboy era.

But your students might be surprised to see where the cowboy era falls on the technology timeline. Research inventions of the 1870s and 1880s and add those dates to your classroom timeline.

Here are some inventions to start with:

  • Barbed wire was invented in 1873. Check out the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum. Cash Peters wrote an awesome description of this museum in his book .
  • The telephone was invented in 1876.
  • Moving pictures — the first step toward TV and movies — were invented in 1877. Cowboys didn’t get to see the movies, but cowboy movies were some of the earliest hits.
  • The phonograph was invented in 1877, too.
  • Toilet paper was invented in 1878.
  • The light bulb was invented in 1879.

The fact is, the cowboy era was full of exciting new technologies. Cowboys didn’t have access to these comforts. In fact, many of the new tech advances — including the railroad — threatened the cowboy way of life. Challenge your class to think how they would feel if they were cowboys reading in a newspaper about these new inventions. Would they want to have railroads and electricity and telephones, or would they be nervous about change? Plan a debate on the subject set in 1880.

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