This summer we had the unforgettable experience of doing science with elementary school children in a remote Amazonian river village.
We arrived by boat, accompanied by our Peruvian guide, Willy, who asked the local teacher if the kids would like to do a little science experiment with us.
Fernando, the primary school teacher, agreed — but only after the kids finished carting their bananas to the river where they would be picked up and taken to market. Upon hearing this news, a pack of excited kids ran their wheelbarrows down the path as fast as they could. A pack of dogs, chickens and a few toddlers trailed behind.
The one-room schoolhouse had no electricity or running water and seemed to lack the school supplies that are abundant in American classrooms. Yet it was full of curious students with bright eyes and fast smiles, eager to learn and do science with us.
I stood before the class and told them that they would all be scientists for the day by investigating what ants like to eat. We call the experiment ‘Ant Picnic‘, but I quickly realized that the concept of a picnic was lost on the children as eating outside seemed to be part of one’s daily routine in the Amazon.
To get us thinking about what ants might like to eat, I asked the children to tell me about their own favorite foods. Their answers were eye-opening — I expected to hear them list the kinds of foods my own little kids like to eat: candy, ice cream, cake. But their answers reflected a very different lifestyle – they listed fish, rice, chicken, and water.
We followed the ‘Ant Picnic’ protocol, using the same methods as other students and researchers have done around the world; we offered ants a choice of six different foods. Each student took a vial filled with one of the foods: sugar water, oil, water mixed with protein powder, salt water, cookie crumbs (which represent a combination of all the previous foods) and plain water. The students made a prediction about which food would attract the most ants. We placed the vials along a line that cut through the village soccer field. And then we waited.
After an hour, it was time for the students to count the ants that had come to each vial – much joy and excitement ensued! The students took their counting jobs very seriously, while Willy and I were careful to keep the straggling ants away from tiny hands.
We tallied the results and clearly the Amazonian ants loved the cookie crumbs best. Moreover, we collected data that would become part of a global research project.
Most of all, I loved showing these students that their very own backyard is a forest so full of riches that scientists from all over the world come to explore and revel in its mysteries. You may not live in the Amazon, but I promise that there are discoveries to be made in your backyard as well.
Michelle Trautwein is the Schlinger Chair of Dipterology at the California Academy of Sciences and an adjunct assistant professor in the Entomology Department at NCSU. Follow her on Twitter @Flylogeny.
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