Review: Amazing Ants–Simple Sidewalk Science (Royal Fireworks Press)

fullsizeoutput_dfdMy kids spent their homeschooling childhoods watching animals go about their lives. Often, we observed animals in their natural habitats: robins, poking for worms in the yard; bees, collecting from flowers; and, of course, ants, scurrying about their business. We also observed our “kept” creatures: fish and aquatic frogs in their tanks, gerbils and guinea pigs in their cages, foster cats just about anywhere in the house, snails and slugs in a terrarium, and, of course, ants in a plastic shoe box.  My father, Barkley Butler, brought us to ants, and, over time, he taught my sons (and me) a good deal about how to do science. W. Barkley Butler, Ph.D., spent the first portion of his career in the lab in cancer research before moving to Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) to teach biology. It’s there that he started to use ant study as a teaching tool. Ant interest led to a few weeks at Ant Course, which led to more ant study, which then led to this book.

Amazing Ants: Simple Sidewalk Science, by Dr. Butler and published by Royal Fireworks Press, written for gifted students at the middle school and high school levels,  is an accessible and yet scholarly walk through not just ant study but also “real science”, which the author defines as the act of raising new questions and providing new information.  Amazing Ants walks its readers through the process of doing science, starting with observation and leading to the presentation of results in a full research report. It is a text and a notebook in one, with a rich set of resources as well. While that scope may seem optimistic (or overwhelming), Amazing Ants manages to comfortably move the reader from the observation of the natural world that they’ve done all their lives to more scientific observation then study in a comfortable and encouraging way.

Science starts with observation, and Amazing Ants’ initial approach to observation has readers down on their knees, scouring the grass, examining plant stems, flipping rocks, and simply staring at the pavement. After a bit of attention to tools needed (not many, and easy to find) and few general ant facts with references, Amazing Ants dives into how to observe like a scientist by setting up simple bait stations. As the book walks the reader through the basics of drawing out ants with carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (all terms he explains clearly along the way), it teaches scientific process as well as those science basics.

After students have honed their baiting and observation skills, Amazing Ants dives deeper. It reaches beyond the usual question of “Why do you think you saw what you saw?” to help the reader appreciate how complicated it can be to sort out those whys. The book walks the reader through “taste tests” for ants that move the young scientist from simply observing to truly understanding the complexity of the data the studies provide. What does it mean if more ants went to one substance more than another? Explorations of sugar concentration, availability of food, and other variables are woven into the fabric of the exploration process, again with all terminology (including some information about concentrations of solution) that reach well beyond the general knowledge many of his readers. Amazing Ants accomplishes this with language and tables, along with a tone that makes the reader feel like the author is sitting right next to you.

Amazing Ants then introduces the reader into the basics of data collection and data analysis, two areas I can’t say I’ve seen addressed thoroughly in any grade-school or many middle-school science resources. Again, the language is accessible and the examples are helpful. The book then explores variables, graph options, averages, percentages, and even ratios, all in the context of the ant observations and experiments discussed previously.  There’s even a section explaining how data can be manipulated a discussion ethical representation of data. That’s pretty impressive for a text written at a middle-school reading level.

At this point, the book sees the student as a scientist and guides readers through three experiments relying on the procedures and math learned in the previous chapters. For each, the reader is lead through a sample experiment about food preference, habitat, and ant behavior. After the instructions for each experiment, the author provides several “challenges”, which are really inquiries that the student could use to design their own experiments or to help them sort out more questions of their own: they are to actually “do” science.  For students who want to present their findings, the book includes a section on the anatomy of a research report as it would appear in a scientific journal and as a poster for a scientific meeting. No, not every reader will need that information, but budding scientists entering science fairs or considering science as a career might give those sections some serious consideration, and certainly teachers or parents could teach the process of those forms of scientific communication with the help of those resources.

While labeled as an Appendix, the last third of the book deserves far more reader attention than most sections with that name. This section contains print and web resources about ants and instructions on collecting and maintaining your own indoor ant colony. No, this isn’t the glass sandwich ant colony of my childhood but rather a simple yet secure way to keep a colony inside, allowing observation of a colony over time and in the ant offseason. To answer the inevitable adult question, no, the ants don’t escape, or at least that’s not been our experience if you follow the straightforward directions. Over the years, my sons and I nurtured several colonies with the plastic shoe box method without mishap, and it was simply a fascinating way to observe the behaviors that are hard to study in nature.

As a homeschooling parent with a passion (obsession?) with science and science education, I can say that this book brings science exploration at home or in the classroom to a much higher level than I’ve seen previously. Not only does Amazing Ants teach ant study, but it also teaches inquiry-based science in a way that both parents and science educators can easily implement. Far too many science texts and classes shy away from true inquiry-based learning, and for understandable reasons. It’s often hard to know where to start and just how to guide students in scientific study, and that can mean it’s all too easy just to stick with experiments with certain outcomes that don’t require the sort of imagination and curiosity that real science requires.

But this book doesn’t require an adult lead to make learning happen. Yes, Amazing Ants would be an excellent resource for a nature summer camp, a co-op class, or a homeschool science study directed by a parent. But it is also written to go directly into the hands of the student. Amazing Ants is written directly to the student, with a teacher’s note appearing only at the end. It’s written with clarity and passion, and with the assumption that the student has this in hand.  It respects the reader, supports the reader, and challenges the reader. It makes science more than just “fun”: It makes science real and important and possible while also making it accessible and understandable. Now that’s amazing.

Disclaimer: My father, W. Barkley Butler, is the author of Amazing Ants, and Royal Fireworks Press has provided me with a copy for review. My enthusiasm for this unique and brilliant book is genuine, though. 

 

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