Ant Exploration Comic

I haven’t written about our newest and biggest science education, conservation engagement project for students. If you follow me on twitter or facebook though you may have heard about it a bit.

Our Ant Exploration Comic anthology will be used to teach students scientific inquiry skills and build thier understanding of how species interact with their environments. By using ants as a ‘model organism’ we hope to introduce other topics relating to ecology, climate and conservation.

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Once printed, this comic will be used to reach over 240 students at three New York City public schools. This is in collaberation with the School of Ants project and all resources, including the digital copy of the comic, will be available free for teachers & educators on the Your Wild Life lab website.

Our project funding through Indiegogo finished last week – with a total of $2,854 raised! We’re overwhelmed by the support and look forward to sharing the comic with you once we finish!

UPDATE: The digital version of our comic is now online! http://www.yourwildlife.org/2013/10/myrmex/

 

Citizen Science in Formal Education

Citizen science is a powerful and emerging discipline focused on improving research outcomes and engaging the public in scientific inquiry. Projects like BudBurst have allowed us to better observe and compare weather variations surrounding the ‘sprung’ in Spring, Journey North has improved our understanding of the Monarch butterfly’s great migration, and WhaleFM has allowed citizens of all ages to experience the sounds just beneath the ocean waves. Participants in citizen science have the opportunity to add to truly cutting-edge research and help bring forth findings that will help solve some of our greatest environmental issues.

© Scientific American
© Scientific American

Citizen science is inherently engaging, reaching out to the curious nature we all share as humans and inspiring us to explore the natural world around us. Most importantly though, citizen science is beginning to democratize the practice of science – tearing down ivory towers and replacing them with public centers where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to science research.

This ‘opening’ of the science world brings both transparency and increased accessibility to science research. It allows for better management and implementation of policies by allowing a more diverse set of stakeholders to be involved in not only the design of research, but also in collection of data and assessment of findings. Citizen science can in then allow for more robust research outcomes while also meeting essential educational objectives. As we in the scientific community work to improve science literacy and public engagement in science research, citizen science should be more fully incorporated into our research & daily activities.

This is particularly true for research that can involve student participants. Integrating relevant and authentic science research into K-12 education can improve science education and inspire the next generation of science researchers.

School of Ants is citizen-science driven project that works with schools in formal education to help students gain a better understanding local biodiversity. My research in collaboration with this project focuses on ways to improve student engagement in science and conservation. In this case, the science research goals and learning objectives are not mutually exclusive – students are adding directly to valuable ecological research while also developing fundamental science skills.

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In order to design and successfully implement other citizen science projects that focus on formal classroom education, effective learning resources must be developed. The main argument by teachers for not including science research in their classroom is that it does not align with required standards. Scientists can work to meet these by promoting inquiry and place-based learning objectives within their research methods.

The future of citizen science will be positively affected by encouraging the participation of younger members of the public. In order to achieve this, scientists must work with educators to align their goals in collaboration. Despite traditional attitudes and understandings, there is an enormous potential for citizen science in formal education.

Ant Diversity & The Uni Project

On Saturday I joined The Uni Project at the Ideas City Festival in downtown Manhattan to present my research on urban ants and science education.

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The Uni is a project designed to provide a place of learning beyond the walls of schools and libraries and into public space. They achieve this by creating a portable educational environment that can be dropped into almost any available street-level location. This space allows children of all ages an opportunity to gather around books and learning experiences, right in the heart of neighborhoods all across New York City.

The “Ant Cube” I created with Uni founder Leslie Davol is designed to give visitors the chance to experience hands-on science through ants. We’ve set-up a microscope where people can observe a live ant and even use an urban ant key to try to identify it. We also have sampling materials so students can collect their own ants.

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You can read more about the Uni at Ideas City and the Ant Cube on their page here -> http://www.theuniproject.org/2013/05/uni-at-ideascity/

! & ! More photos form the event and Ant Cube here! http://www.theuniproject.org/2013/05/wrapping-up-at-ideas-city/

Exploring Urban Biodiversity at Scioteen

Earlier this month I attended the Science Online Teen conference here in New York City. My job was to present a session on Urban Biodiversity & Citizen science. While I came in as a moderator, I left feeling more like a teacher, student and scientist all in one. I was able to share my knowledge, learn from others and discuss the future of science learning with a talented & diverse group of people.

You can read more about our session in my How Wild is New York City? Reflections from Scioteen post on Your Wild Life’s blog.

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More Information about the other presenters and conference here -> http://scienceonline.com/scienceonlineteen-look-whos-coming/

Your Wild Life Q & A

A few weeks ago I met with the Your Wild Life  team to help with one of their new New York City based research projects. They’ve been working with urban ant species in the big apple for awhile, but just recently started a new project assessing the responses of arthropods to the disturbances caused by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about this, pretty amazing, research study in a write up on NC State’s site here.

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Placing an ‘iButton’ sensor in a median street tree.

For a few days during their 2 week NYC field session in March, I met with researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Lea Shell to set-up the primary data collecting tools and survey Broadway medians that would be used in the study. I’m working closely with Lea on my thesis – which involves designing & piloting curriculum for their School of Ants project – and was able to use this field time to discuss science & education as well.

You can find a link to the interview that came from our discussion here http://www.yourwildlife.org/2013/03/science-education-q-a-with-andrew-collins/

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Sifting out ants during a median collection.

An Ant Essay

After a full day of drudging through thick vegetation, battling mosquitos and stinging hair caterpillars, and working hours beneath the blazing summer sun, our team finally exited the research plot. Walking through an open patch leading to our temporary base, sharp thorns from the invasive Mile-A-Minute vine still clung to my pants like unwanted mementos from a rough day in the field. We all met below the shade of a large black gum tree, finally taking the time to gather both our thoughts and data sheets. “Anyone else want a cold drink from the bodega?” our team leader Sanpisa asked. Twenty minutes later we were driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, A/C cooling our faces, Michael Jackson’s Thriller playing on the radio, enjoying some well-deserved frozen ices we picked up on Flatbush Ave. Just a typical day in the life of an urban ecologist.

Our research team has found our way to this plot in Marine Park Brooklyn as a result of the MillionTreesNYC initiative to plant new multi-layered forests in the five city boroughs. In each research plot, we are sampling invasive herbs and measuring planted tree growth since last season. My work focuses on sampling ant communities within these urban forest fragments. Do ants inhabit transitioning urban landscapes? If so, what species are most abundant? Although we understand that urbanization threatens biodiversity, very little is known about insect and particularly ant diversity in cities. These questions I hoped to investigate during my time in the field, through careful measurements and recording of data. Despite these focused intentions, I often stumbled upon more unique and surprising examples of how species interact, interactions occurring daily and unbeknownst to most of us.

While taking the measurement of a small oak tree at Marine Park, I knelt below the vegetation to catch a quick drink of water. As I tipped my hat and raised my Nalgene, a dark glob hidden beneath a single oak leaf flickered past my peripheral vision. I quickly removed my sunglasses for a closer look, squinting to get a better look at this odd biological feature. A cache of small, brown, antennaed insects sat there, huddled together and surrounded by a small band of ants raising their heads and brushing their jaws. Had these ants stumbled upon the ultimate insect-meal jackpot and are now literally licking their chops with anticipation? As it turns out, this was not the case. Their hunger was not for the insects themselves, but for the drops of honeydew about to release from their abdomens. These tiny plant parasites are known as aphids and the ants surrounding them are their protectors, keeping a close eye on them like a shepherd to his herd. Despite what some may understand of natural selection, nature does not occur as just a battle of the fittest, to eat or be eaten, and this mutualistic relationship between ants and aphids pleasantly highlights this fact.

Ants tend to their aphids on the leaf of a newly planted tree at Marine Park.
Ants tend to their aphids on the leaf of a newly planted tree at Marine Park.

As a student of urban ecology, it is often difficult to explain why someone would study the natural environment of a city. The title itself may even seem paradoxical: How exactly do you study nature in a place so void of it? Yet as our world grows the value of studying ecology in the urban environment is becoming more and more apparent. New York City may not be the Peruvian Amazon or Great Barrier Reef of Australia, but the information we can gather here is equally valuable to our understanding of not only the natural world, but more importantly, of our own interactions with our urban neighbors. Observing this relationship between ants and aphids highlights the types of interactions taking place in our backyards and in our homes. As humans we are interacting with our natural world in a similar manner, even though our relationships with other species are not always as apparent to us. The more we come to understand these interactions, the better we will come to understand ourselves and our need to live sustainably with the many other species that inhabit our world.

Camp at the Marine Park site.
Camp at the Marine Park site.