A unique and truly remarkable paper appeared in Biology Letters a while back. Although it is a few years now, the paper is well worth drawing attention to because, as far as I know, nothing similar has appeared ever since. It is remarkable for several reasons but the two most striking reasons, to my mind, are that the research was performed and the paper was written by 25 school children between the ages of 8 and 10 and that it was accepted for publication in a highly respected international peer-reviewed scientific journal. The article is written in kids speak, including the use of sound effects and hand-drawn illustrations in coloured pencil.
This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before. It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years’ time). In this experiment, we trained bees to solve a particular puzzle. The puzzle was go to blue if surrounded by yellow, but yellow if surrounded by blue
Commentaries have appeared in various places (here, here, here, here) and the paper is (for a change) free (as in $0) so I will not dwell on the details of the work (which are definitely worthwhile to peruse, see e.g. here). Instead I'd like to focus on two aspects of the paper that in particular resonates with me. Firstly the abstract. As far as abstracts go it is likely the most poetic abstract I have ever come across. It is nothing short of an ode to what science is and how it should be conducted. This is something we professional scientists rarely appreciate.
Background Real science has the potential to not only amaze, but also transform the way one thinks of the world and oneself. This is because the process of science is little different from the deeply resonant, natural processes of play. Play enables humans (and other mammals) to discover (and create) relationships and patterns. When one adds rules to play, a game is created. This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature. When thought of in this way, science education becomes a more enlightened and intuitive process of asking questions and devising games to address those questions. But, because the outcome of all game-playing is unpredictable, supporting this ‘messyness’, which is the engine of science, is critical to good science education (and indeed creative education generally). Indeed, we have learned that doing ‘real’ science in public spaces can stimulate tremendous interest in children and adults in understanding the processes by which we make sense of the world. The present study (on the vision of bumble-bees) goes even further, since it was not only performed outside my laboratory (in a Norman church in the southwest of England), but the ‘games’ were themselves devised in collaboration with 25 8- to 10-year-old children. They asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data. They also drew the figures (in coloured pencil) and wrote the paper. Their headteacher (Dave Strudwick) and I devised the educational programme (we call ‘i,scientist’), and I trained the bees and transcribed the childrens' words into text (which was done with smaller groups of children at the school's local village pub). So what follows is a novel study (scientifically and conceptually) in ‘kids speak’ without references to past literature, which is a challenge. Although the historical context of any study is of course important, including references in this instance would be disingenuous for two reasons. First, given the way scientific data are naturally reported, the relevant information is simply inaccessible to the literate ability of 8- to 10-year-old children, and second, the true motivation for any scientific study (at least one of integrity) is one's own curiousity, which for the children was not inspired by the scientific literature, but their own observations of the world. This lack of historical, scientific context does not diminish the resulting data, scientific methodology or merit of the discovery for the scientific and ‘non-scientific’ audience. On the contrary, it reveals science in its truest (most naive) form, and in this way makes explicit the commonality between science, art and indeed all creative activities.
Principal finding ‘We discovered that bumble-bees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from. We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. (Children from Blackawton)’.
Second, apparently the paper was rejected by several high-profile journals such as Nature, Science, and PLoS. Now, it's not entirely clear what the reasons for the rejections were. Was it a perceived lack of scientific merit, e.g. methodological flaws or not novel enough results, or did they have an issue with the unorthodox format (kids speak, lack of statistical analysis and references)? Who knows? However, if the rejections were based on what a referee apparently aptly phrased as young people cannot do science (see the Acknowledgements of the paper), then we are having a big problem at our hands. This is the kind of attitude that gives academia a bad rep and anyone adhering to these types of outdated misconceptions and prejudices is an embarrassment to the entire academic community. Shame on you. You go kids. You are changing the world.
We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school’s fridge (and made bee pie ). The bees fell asleep. Once they fell asleep, we took the bees out, one at a time, and painted little dots on them (yellow, blue, orange, blue-orange, blue-yellow,etc.). We put them into the tube and warmed them up and then let them into the arena. No bees were harmed during this procedure.
Some other noteworthy aspects of the paper worth mentioning;
Blackawton et al. 2010. Blackawton bee. Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.