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Science. Communication. Community.

Students Discover When Scientists Reach Out

Students Discover is a five-year, $7.3 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation that encourages collaboration between scientists and science teachers to engage North Carolina’s students.

by Jessica Morrison

Get Involved!

Your Wild Life encourages would-be citizen scientists to get involved. Image Courtesy:

There’s a bright spot in North Carolina.

As a Mass Media Fellow last year, I wrote about a citizen science project based in North Carolina called School of Ants. I was intrigued by a group of scientists who were devoting their combined research talents to engage the public through the study of ants.

A horde of ants on a food-gathering mission descends upon the remains of a Keebler Sandies Pecan Shortbread cookie, breaking off tiny crumbs.

Normally such raids end with a victory march back to an underground labyrinth. But this is no picnic. It’s a science project.

After leaving out the cookie pieces for an hour, Lake Forest College biology student Jeremy Boeing will scoop up all the nearby ants, freeze them overnight and ship them to a North Carolina laboratory for identification.

But this wasn’t just a one-off science project that kids could do for fun. Researchers in this North Carolina lab offered would-be citizen scientists a chance to participate in real science that has real implications for the study of our living planet. My editors were impressed, too. The story landed on the front page of The Chicago Tribune during a busy news season (Summer Olympics, anyone?).

Now one year later, this same group, led by Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University, has received a five-year, $7.3 million National Science Foundation grant to take their citizen science initiative – called Students Discover – into North Carolina schools.

I asked Dunn what this new initiative is intended to do, what makes him tick, and what ever happened with School of Ants.

Students Discover will engage several school districts in North Carolina directly, bringing teachers into science labs and sending hands-on science back into the classroom. Teachers will work with scientists to develop modules that serve the curriculum’s core concepts, and both teachers and researchers will be involved with evaluating the process along the way to figure out which things work and which ones don’t.

“They’ll do real science. We want to be making big discoveries,” said Dunn, an associate professor of biology. “A successful first year would be having students and teachers standing up to say they’ve found something that’s never been seen before.”

A father himself, Dunn is aware of the challenges that science educators face, and he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what can be done to make their lives easier. Partnering with the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and working with social scientists to figure out how to best serve North Carolina’s science teachers and students is a start.

“I see myself in these kids. I was a kid who was always outside gathering things…because I was personally interested,” Dunn said. “The idea that I was seeing things that no one else had seen or understood was the remotest idea in the universe to me. I assumed everyone already knew this.”

But in reality, most of the species where we live have never been studied, he added.

That’s what School of Ants was all about. Last year, when I was writing about the program, Dunn and his research group had just issued a call asking residents of New York City, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham to collect and submit ants from their own backyards.

The aim was to map the distribution of species and investigate communities of ants that might mirror communities of people — gathered in neighborhoods, distributed along transportation lines, separated by geographical features.

Creating a map of the nation’s ants is expected to help scientists understand the movement of the insects from one region to another, investigate changes in the ant ecosystem and maybe even identify new species. Fewer than 13,000 ant species are known worldwide, and scientists believe there may be as many as twice that number.

“One of the interesting things is that even though structurally, those cities have shared features, the composition of ants in the cities is very different,” Dunn said. “Chicago is essentially taken over by a single ant species, whereas New York is more of a melting pot.”

So far, School of Ants has collected data to figure out which ants are most common across the U.S., identified a few species that are rarely studied, and led to a book.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants, written by entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice, uses data collected through School of Ants to tell the stories of North America’s tiniest residents. And it’s freely available for download at

Students Discover, Dunn’s latest initiative, has set a goal of engaging 10,000 teachers – not just in North Carolina, but from all over the world! – in the first year and a half. For more information, read Calling All Teachers!

“As this unfolds, we want to involve as many kinds of people in as many ways as possible,” he said. “If there are other institutions who want to build off what we’ve done, we’re very open to collaborating with folks in many places to make this as great as it can be.”

To learn more about any of the programs mentioned here, visit


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This entry was posted on September 19, 2013 by in Citizen Science and tagged , , , .
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