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A Review of “Amazing Ants: Simple Sidewalk Science”

Homeschooling Two Twice-Exceptional Boys

My 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 shoebox. 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 was 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 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 textbook 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 move readers comfortably from the observation of the natural world that they’ve done all their lives to more scientific observation, then to 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 few general ant facts with references and a bit of attention to tools needed (not many, and easy to find), Amazing Ants dives into how to observe like a scientist by setting up simple bait stations. As the book walks readers through the basics of drawing out ants with carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (all terms that he explains clearly along the way), it teaches the 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 readers appreciate how complicated it can be to sort out those “whys.” The book walks readers through “taste tests” for ants that move young scientists from simply observing to truly understanding the complexity of the data that 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 terminology (including some information about concentrations of solutions) that reach well beyond the general knowledge of many readers. Amazing Ants accomplishes this with language and tables, along with a tone that makes readers feel as though the author is sitting right next to them.

Amazing Ants then introduces readers to 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 and a discussion of ethical representation of data. That’s pretty impressive for a text written at a middle-school reading level.

At this point, the book sees students as scientists and guides them through three experiments relying on the procedures and math learned in the previous chapters. Readers are led through a sample experiment about food preferences, one about habitat, and another about ant behavior. After the instructions for each experiment, the author provides several “challenges,” which are really inquiries that students could use to design their own experiments or to help them sort out more questions of their own; they are to “do” actual 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 these resources.

While labeled as an Appendix, the last section 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. 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 off-season. 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 have nurtured several colonies with the plastic shoebox method without mishap, and it was simply a fascinating way to observe behaviors that are hard to study in nature.

As a homeschooling parent with a passion (obsession?) for 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 students. Amazing Ants is written for students, with instructors’ notes appearing only at the end. It’s written with clarity and passion, and with the assumption that students have it in hand. It respects the readers, supports the readers, and challenges the readers. It makes science more than just “fun”; it makes it 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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