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I work with an afterschool eco-club, creating and maintaining a school courtyard, among other projects. We have vegetable gardens, a variety of representative native ecosystems, and several nature-based stormwater management features. Students get hands-on learning experiences creating and maintaining the area. We also do a lot of weeding.

Sometimes the work in the courtyard feels too task-oriented. The work is important, and our students can get great learning experiences just from digging a hole and using wheelbarrows, for example - they really get into it, and have bonded over the challenges. But I'm also a strong advocate of free exploration time, and opportunities to learn from nature.

During a recent weeding expedition, one of the students informed me that he'd discovered something, so I came over to look. One of the logs that we'd partially buried to serve as a stepping stone in a path was swarming with ants. We'd started work in the courtyard a few years back, when it was a mostly sterile area with a thick layer of wood mulch. Over time, we amended the clay soil by digging in compost, and planted hundreds of native plants. We brought in rotting logs from other school habitats, which helped to seed the area with essential soil-based organisms, including ants, spiders, beetles, and other insects.

Now we have a very active native habitat, shared by a remarkable diversity of plants, and insects, as well as some birds and mammals. We do periodic inspections of what's living under the logs, and of the pollinators visiting the flowering native plants. I'm particularly glad of the thriving ant communities, because ants are a personal fascination. Reading E.O. Wilson's The Insect Societies and learning about eusociality in my twenties opened my mind about what had until then just been a deep curiosity, stemming from a strong phobia of bees as a child.

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When I was about 12, I discovered several bee hives in a yard adjacent to the church I went to with my family. I'd wander off bored during coffee hour while my mom mingled, and one day I followed a path through dense brush and stepped out into a clearing that was buzzing with hundreds of bees. I was completely terrified, and expected to be attacked by swarms of bees. I wasn't, so I kept returning, until I could sit directly in front of the hives, breathing in the rich scent of honey and pollen as I watched the bees come and go, blundering into me as they went. They never stung me.

That experience was formative for me. I learned to master my fears through calm observation, deepened my interest in the natural world, and realized that there were amazing realms beyond my conventional world of school, friends and family. I was a good kid, and had pretty much internalized the belief that although most of my interactions with school and society (beyond playing and reading) were boring or frustrating, by being a dutiful student and polite in adult company, eventually all would be revealed, and I would understand the world, just like the adults around me.

However, I'd found the path that led me to these bees on my own. No teacher or adult had brought me here. I shared the experience with others, but mostly visited alone, and didn't talk about it much. Since then, I've spent a lot of time observing and learning about social insects (and even drafted a complex scifi story centered on ants, AI, and swarm theory). But the main learning experience for me was that there was value and  satisfaction in following unconventional paths, that I could choose for myself where I put my focus, and that I needed to follow my interests, rather than always deferring to society's conventions.

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So naturally, I stopped weeding to observe the ants with the student. I crouched down low to watch them. I knew at a glance what had happened, but I wanted to lead him through the discovery process.

"So what do you see here?" I asked.
"A lot of ants!", he said.
"What do you think is happening?". No answer. One thing that I've noticed from working with schools as an adult is that students are taught to be afraid of giving incorrect answers - it's safer to stay quiet, than risk being mocked. I have a hard time not speaking up when students are being scolded or humiliated by teachers for well-intentioned but incorrect questions or comments, which is something that I observe regularly.

"You see where the bark is broken off, and the dirt is stirred up?", I say, "That just happened recently. This is an ant colony, and part of where they live just got destroyed. Can you see those white things, that look like grains of rice? Those are their eggs. So right now, all of these ants are upset about what happened, and they're trying to figure out what to do next."
The student is leaning in closer now - "What's that?" He asks.

I reach in and pick up an orb-weaver spider, that's being attacked by 2 ants. "When ants get disturbed, they go into defense mode, and they'll attack anything nearby."
One of the ants is trying to sting the spider, the other is using its jaws, but the student doesn't want to get close enough to see. I brush the ants off, and release the spider.
"Usually I wouldn't intervene in nature, but this was a disturbance caused by humans", I tell him, "One of us damaged the ant colony while weeding, and that's why they're attacking this spider. Humans create a lot of disturbance in this world, without being aware of what they're doing."

The student is quiet. I know that he's soaking this up, so I keep talking.

"One thing that's interesting about ants is that they're not very smart as individuals, but they can do amazing stuff by working together. So right now, we see a lot of ants running around, trying to figure out what's happening. It's kind of like what happened after the Boston bombings, except the ants don't have tv to tell them what's going on. So we have a lot of ants who are looking for something to fight. And here are some that are working to move the eggs to a safe place. Over time, other ants are going to notice what they're doing, and start helping them, and others are going to start rebuilding the damaged part of the colony".

When I'm on a roll with a learning moment like this, I usually just keep the information flowing. "This is called swarm theory - none of these individual ants has good information about what's happened, and no-one's telling them what to do, but by working together, they find solutions. And actually, humans use swarm theory as well. If you remember after the Boston bombing, there were a lot of different theories about what had happened, who was responsible. Over time, with lots of people running around and doing research and coming up with ideas, we started to get a clearer picture of what had happened."

I figure that's enough, and take a step back. "Ok, now I'm going to go back to weeding. Your job is to observe these ants for as long as you're interested". I walked back over to where I'd been weeding. I'm not sure what the student got out of the experience, but I was grateful to have had a few minutes to share a learning moment in nature with him.

Originally posted to erratic on Fri May 24, 2013 at 06:23 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Community Spotlight.

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