Project: Ant Colony Search

At first glance, it might seem like an odd grouping: ants, space, and high school students. But Stanford University biologist Deborah M. Gordon is hoping that the combination will produce results that will help save lives.

Gordon is known for studying collective behavior; a particular interest is how how creatures “search” together. Searching is an extremely important skill to insects and animals, because they want to find food in the most efficient way possible, while encountering the fewest obstacles and predators possible. Different species have different search techniques, and ants are especially good at searching in groups. Last year, Gordon sent eight groups of ants to the International Space Station to study how microgravity affected how they search their environment. Now Gordon has set her sights on studying more of the 14,000 different species of ants there are around the globe, and she’s enlisting the help of high school students to do so.

She has crafted a lesson plan for teachers to incorporate into their curriculum. The experiment is set up to use commonly available materials. The students will build a special enclosure that allows them to observe ant behavior as the ants explore. Then they will measure the ants’ movements, and record their results on a public website that can be found here.

From a pedagogical point of view, the lesson is designed to “engage students by providing opportunities for them to explore ants and their behavior, ask scientific questions, collect and analyze data and develop explanations about ant colonies and how ants work together.”

From a research point of view, an analysis of the results could offer suggestions on how to program robot swarms for things like search and rescue operations, or exploration.

“We will compare the results from different species and may learn about some new algorithms for collective search that no one has thought of yet,” says Gordon.

If you’re interested in learning more about ants, also check out Gordon’s 2003 TED talk on ant colonies.

Chandra Clarke is a Webby Honoree-winning blogger, a successful entrepreneur, and an author. Her book Be the Change: Saving the World with Citizen Science is available at Amazon. You can connect with her on Twitter @chandraclarke.