A few weeks ago I went to elementary school in Italy. I had been asked to visit one of the schools where professors at the University of Parma in Italy have been working with children to study ants.
There were three of us on the expedition. The other two were my six-year-old daughter and Fiorenza Spotti. Fiorenza helps to lead the Parma ant group’s work with schools. When we entered the classroom, Fiorenza introduced my daughter to the students. Seconds later, my daughter was enveloped into a sea of little Italian girls eager to hold her hands. Fiorenza then began to ask the kids questions. “How do you tell the difference between an ant and a wasp? Are the worker ants girls or boys?” And then, “What kinds of ants do you think we will find?” I expected the students to say “big” or “stinging,” but Fiorenza had already visited this class and prepared them for what they might find. A proud little boy with hair that stuck straight out in every direction remembered the visit. His hand shot up. Fiorenza called on him and he squeaked, “Lasius emarginatus,” and then, as if awaiting a badge, beamed.
The project Fiorenza is leading with the kids is a version of a project we began several years ago in the U.S., a project we call School of Ants that aims to engage children and adults in studying ants and, in the process, to conduct rigorous science about the world with us. The project has spread across the U.S., Australia and, now, thanks to Fiorenza and her advisors, Cristina Castracani and Alessandra Mori, Italy.
In the U.S., participants in the project put out crumbled Pecan Sandies cookies to attract ants in both green and paved areas (which they, and we, can then compare). Using Pecan Sandies as bait for ants is a time honored tradition among ant biologists. The cookies may not be very healthy for humans, but to ants they are a super food—sugary, salty and fatty all at once. In Italy, things proceeded similarly. Each child was given a sampling vial, a flag to place beside it (on which they would scribble their name) and the instruction to go forth to sample either a cement or green space in their schoolyard. Everything was just as we do in the U.S. (see video) albeit with more style. The flags the students used to mark their spots were set in little wax bottoms, each one decorated uniquely and the Pecan Sandies were replaced by cookies Fiorenza’s mom made, cookies so good that fewer than half of them seem to have made it out of the lab. With glitter and small vials of delicious cookies, the students went, teeming, bumbling, squealing and running, outside, where they would forage, like ants, for ants. They were like Lewis and Clark, or at least what Lewis and Clark would have been like if they had been asked to explore the West when they were eight.