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Using ants to teach high-schoolers about science


Now this is fun: Stanford biologist Deborah M. Gordon, PhD, has developed a "citizen science" lesson plan that gets high-school students to study ants. Yes, ants. Gordon, who studies group behavior and is also a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, sent hundreds of the picnic pests to the orbiting International Space Station last year, and this collaborative work is a continuation of that research.

From a Stanford News piece:

The lesson plan guides students as they investigate new collective search algorithms in species of ants that haven't been studied – and there are more than 14,000 species to learn about. Ants may not encounter microgravity on Earth, but they search in every other kind of environment. The results might offer suggestions on how to program robots for rescue and exploration. Collective search algorithms are used to program rescue robots to search efficiently. When robots search dangerous territory for humans, it may be most effective, and cheapest, to mimic ants and not require the robots to report back to a central controller.


"Deborah Gordon is a scientist who wants to reach out to classroom teachers who are preparing our future scientists and citizens," [Tammy Moriarty, PhD, a professional development associate at Stanford's Center to Support Excellence in Teaching] says. The lesson plan engages students with a scientific inquiry that does not have a predictable answer. As a result, the students are actually doing science, including collecting and observing wild ants and looking for patterns in their behavior.

Students will use technology, such as cell phone photography or video, to record ant behavior and see how ants go about searching a new area thoroughly. Using affordable and commonly available materials, the students will build an enclosure that allows them to observe ant behavior as the ants explore a new area. Then they will measure the ants' movements, to see how the ants coordinate their search and how well they cover the area. When student researchers record their results in an online database, the data will be available to other students and scientists.

It's true that the work of these young scientists is unlikely to have direct applications to human health. But anything that interests kids in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, as this lesson plan does, is a good thing in my book - and could potentially steer them towards a career in medicine or biomedical research.

Previously: Internships expose local high-schoolers to STEM careers and academic life, Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas and Fruit flies headed to the International Space Station to study the effects of weightlessness on the heart
Photo by Troup Dresser

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