The San Diego Urban Ant Project: Engaging Students in Scientific Practices Through Authentic Collaboration
By Shelley Glenn Lee and Kristin Komatsubara
One fall morning, following a rare rainstorm, second-grade students arrived at their classroom and shrieked in excitement. “Look! There are so many ants!” they shouted as they watched a two-inch wide black line moving across the floor and up the classroom wall. Where are they going? Where did they come from? Do they bite? On and on, their questions generated curiosity and perplexed their teachers. Later that year, the teachers signed on to partner with a local university to launch The San Diego Urban Ant Project, an endeavor that would engage students across multiple grades in authentic scientific research as citizen scientists, and provide relevant to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) being implemented by their classroom teachers. With a focus on the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), teachers designed projects embedded with 3-dimensional instruction to engage students as scientists while building new content knowledge through multiple Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs).
Third-grade students conduct an ant survey in a local nature preserve.[/caption]
When asked about their personal experiences with ants, most students will share a story about a time when ants “invaded” their home; showing up in their bathroom sink, creating a thick trail in and out of the kitchen, or moving in and out of a hole in their yard. More than likely, these run-ins have been with the non-native, invasive Argentine Ant, Linepithema humile. It is an adaptable and strategic species that will outcompete and destroy any ant that does not belong to their “supercolony.” Led by Dr. David Holway at UC San Diego (UCSD,) a long-term ecological study is underway to study and map Argentine Ants across San Diego County. This past year, with several teachers from multiple High Tech High campuses committed to participating, hundreds of K-12 students became citizen scientists, conducting surveys and studying the Argentine Ant in their community. Students generated data from across central and north county San Diego, contributing significantly to the project’s first-year effort and providing an authentic experience for students to fulfill a vision of the NGSS by engaging as scientists who are routinely using the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs.) to better understand their world.
The collaboration with the university revealed to both teachers and students alike how scientific practices are utilized by research scientists. From defining the problem of invasive ants to asking questions about what makes ants invasive, as well as conducting investigations and collecting data of ant locations and species, the project opened up multiple lines of inquiry and the discovery of multiple phenomena in our own backyards. All teachers and students were trained to use the same scientific protocol used by researchers across the nation--a simple “cookie bait” trap using a particular brand and type of cookie that attracts a variety of ants, including the Argentine Ant. The simplicity of the protocol allowed students of all ages to engage with authentic data collection and provided the springboard for more in-depth inquiry through project work. At all levels, students investigated and explored the core idea of biodiversity and humans (LS4.D) and human impacts (ESS3.C) and transformed their understandings into a variety of products for the public.
Kinder students examine ants found on campus.[/caption]
At the elementary level, all students engaged in asking questions and making observations. By looking closely at ants and their arthropod relatives in the classroom, kinder and third-grade students discovered the unique physical features and behaviors that allow ants to survive in a variety of habitats (LS1.A and LS2.D). Many students were able to plan and conduct investigations as well. In kindergarten, students were fascinated with the behavior of ants, particularly in and around the school. They noticed ants were carrying bits of food but wondered what they were eating and if they had preferences for one type of food over another. This led to many student-generated investigations such as, “Do ants prefer salty or sugary food?” and, “Do they like popcorn?,” beginning to build their understanding of LS1.C at the kindergarten level. Students in third grade began with a campus survey to determine if there were ants on campus and where they were located. The initial survey led to the discovery that there were at least four species of ants on campus and they were found in a variety of places including planters, sidewalks, and lunch tables. This launched an inquiry into the variety and diversity of ants in our community and provided an opportunity for students to research ants by reading non-fiction texts, interviewing scientific experts from the university, and conducting a variety of field surveys in the community, supporting LS2.A, LS2.C.
A middle school student conducts a survey on campus.[/caption]
Middle school students wondered about the lack of ants in certain habitats and questioned, “Why are there so many ants here but none there?” They launched investigations to study the interactions of ants (LS1.A, LS2.D), populations of different ant species (LS4.C), and ants’ dependency on their environmental interactions both with living and non-living factors (LS2.A.) Students calculated the mean and median population densities of ants within different areas around the school. Students compared their ant data to environmental factors such as water sources and neighboring ant colonies. Students also wondered, “What would it look and feel like to be as small as an ant?” Driven by their question, students took perspective photographs to model human figurines mimicking ant behaviors and surrounded by life-sized objects to the scale that ants would experience them. Through their research and art, students built an understanding of multiple DCIs and collaboratively produced a San Diego field guide of ants.
Elementary students work with UCSD scientists to identify species of ants found at Cabrillo National Monument.[/caption]
High schoolers deepened their understanding of Life and Earth Science DCIs by engaging in more sophisticated data analyses and communicating their findings through research papers and scientific poster sessions. In the papers, the students looked at human impacts on local ant populations, with an emphasis on ESS3.C and LS2.A. Students asked the question of whether landscape choices such as community and residential lawns may contribute to the prevalence of Argentine ant populations and began to map this data using Geographic Information System software. This endeavor allowed students to engage in all eight SEPs, as they moved from questions and investigations into data analysis and interpretation and mathematics and computational thinking, culminating in constructing explanations and arguing from evidence. High school students also communicated information by creating species-specific lessons for elementary students and designing and building ant farms with laser cut art and information to share. These art pieces were donated during the lesson presentations and live on in several elementary classrooms.
A major contribution to the project was a set of surveys conducted at Cabrillo National Monument. Working with the park rangers and the Holway Lab, hundreds of students were able to survey the Point Loma Peninsula and provide much-needed information about the presence of the Argentine Ant. Students in kindergarten and third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eleventh grade were able to provide data that identified eleven species of ants present on the peninsula--ten native species and the non-native Argentine Ant. Students beamed with pride knowing their collection efforts helped to contribute to the scientific understanding of the local ecosystem. Seeing the ant species she discovered placed on the Cabrillo map, a student reflected, “I feel really good knowing that I helped scientists to solve a problem.” The set of data was also invaluable to the park, as there had never been an extensive survey conducted on the peninsula and it had been several years since ants were studied on site.
High School students display their original and informative ant farms at a school exhibition.[/caption]
As a culminating event, students communicated their findings and shared their work through a public exhibition held on campus at UC San Diego. A shared space was used to allow all students to display their work--Kindergarteners read their “All About Ants” books and performed interpretive dances while third-graders shared their scientific sketches and research on native ants. Middle schoolers showcased their photography and ant research, while high schoolers shared their maps and educational products. Their collective data was highlighted throughout the exhibition and was an overall “phenomenal” experience.
To learn more about the San Diego Urban Ant Project and view student work, visit https://sdurbanantproject.weebly.com/
Shelley Glenn Lee is a K-5 science teacher at High Tech Elementary North County, a member of the Core Leadership Team for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for High Tech High, and a member of CSTA.
Kristin Komatsubara is an instructional coach at High Tech Middle, a member of the Core Leadership Team for the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for High Tech