Food: Capture-Recapture with M&M’s

A hands-on activity using the capture-recapture method to estimate the number of M&M’sTM in a population The activity was described in G. D. Bisbee and D. M. Conway, “Studying proportions using the capture-recapture method”, Mathematics Teacher, 92 (3) (1999), 215-218.

Summary: Scientists use the capture-recapture method as a tool to estimate population size. Animals are captured, tagged, and then released back into the population. Later, a sample is captured and a proportion used to estimate population size.

Specifics: Let us say that we sample a beetle population of unknown size. We capture and mark ten of those beetles with a spot of India ink, then return them to the population and give them time to mix in with the population. We then recapture another sample consisting of eight beetles, one of which was previously marked. We substitute the numbers into the foregoing proportion to estimate the population size, getting 1/8 = 10/(Pop size). Solving for the Pop size gives us an estimated population of eighty beetles. Students are, predictably, less than enthusiastic about having to handle the creepy-crawly critters so this activity uses a population of M&M’s of unknown size to estimate. Each team of two to four students receives some M&M in a paper cup, which is covered on top with crumpled paper towels. The students “tag” the M&M’s from a random sample and then, after mixing them back in, sample again to estimate the number in the cup (they can later check how far off their estimates  were and compare to other teams).

(Resource photo illustration by Barbara Cohen, 2020; this summary compiled by Bibek Aryal)



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Author Name: 
Gregory Bisbey and David Conway
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