Stanford's Ants in Space study launches citizen science for students worldwide

Want to teach high school students about science, technology, engineering and math? "Get ants," advises Stanford biologist Deborah M. Gordon, who sent ants to the International Space Station in January 2014. When high school students get antsy, a teacher-tested lesson plan can direct their energy toward studying ants.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Biologist Deborah M. Gordon demonstrates a simple ant arena that can be used to conduct the same experiment on collective search that was done on the International Space Station.

Last year, eight groups of ants flew to the International Space Station, boosted by a rocket and the curiosity of Stanford University biologist Deborah M. Gordon, who studies collective behavior. Results from that mission, recently published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, showed that the collective search behavior of ants in microgravity had some interesting twists. Now Gordon is inviting high school students to collaborate in further research on collective search by ants on Earth, through a new “citizen science” lesson plan. Younger students could try it too.

The lesson plan guides students as they investigate new collective search algorithms in species of ants that haven’t been studied – and there are more than 14,000 species to learn about. Ants may not encounter microgravity on Earth, but they search in every other kind of environment. The results might offer suggestions on how to program robots for rescue and exploration. Collective search algorithms are used to program rescue robots to search efficiently. When robots search dangerous territory for humans, it may be most effective, and cheapest, to mimic ants and not require the robots to report back to a central controller.

Teacher-tested by Tammy Moriarty, a professional development associate at Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, the lesson plan integrates science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as the STEM subjects.

Students will investigate, on Earth, the same underlying question Gordon asked in the Ants-in-Space project: What techniques can be used to thoroughly explore a novel area, without any central control or plan for how to coordinate the search? Data and results will be posted on a public website. “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.

The ISS experiment was done with the pavement ant. The results showed that this species searches by spreading quickly to the boundary of the area they are exploring. This search algorithm may be why pavement ants often end up in conflict with neighboring colonies along sidewalks. “In the extreme condition of microgravity in space, the pavement ants did the same thing they did on Earth, but not as well,” says Gordon.

However, microgravity gave the ants another, unexpected opportunity to shine: They showed a remarkable ability to walk on the surface of their enclosure, and a capacity to regain contact with the surface after they lost hold, tumbling around or skidding rapidly in a Michael Jackson-type move, Gordon says.

But not all ants search the way pavement ants do. “An earlier experiment showed that another species, Argentine ants, do not move toward boundaries,” says Gordon. “Instead, they search thoroughly all over the new area. Comparing the search behavior of different species can show us how evolution has shaped collective behavior to fit extreme conditions.”

An ant’s world harbors food, water and shelter, as well as enemies. An ant colony needs to monitor its surroundings to find out what is going on. But the ants don’t have access to social media to find out the buzz in their environments. And they don’t organize their search: They don’t vote, hold meetings or plan strategies. Most ant species don’t see well either, but they all have an excellent sense of smell.

To monitor the colony’s world, ants have to move around, because an ant has to get close to something to smell it. Over millions of years of evolution, different ant species have evolved in different environments, and they have probably evolved interesting and diverse ways of keeping track of what is going on, says Gordon.

For instance, when Argentine ants are more crowded, they search more thoroughly, using a path that winds around in a small area. But ants that are less crowded cover more ground by walking farther in straight lines. They find out whether there are many other ants nearby through smelling each other when they touch antennae.

Species that are successful invaders outside their native habitats, such as the Argentine ants and pavement ants, may be especially good at searching. Perhaps that is why they are so quick to find the crumbs on our kitchen counters, says Gordon.

And the lesson is …

“Deborah Gordon is a scientist who wants to reach out to classroom teachers who are preparing our future scientists and citizens,” Moriarty says. The lesson plan engages students with a scientific inquiry that does not have a predictable answer. As a result, the students are actually doing science, including collecting and observing wild ants and looking for patterns in their behavior.

Students will use technology, such as cell phone photography or video, to record ant behavior and see how ants go about searching a new area thoroughly. Using affordable and commonly available materials, the students will build an enclosure that allows them to observe ant behavior as the ants explore a new area. Then they will measure the ants’ movements, to see how the ants coordinate their search and how well they cover the area. When student researchers record their results in an online database, the data will be available to other students and scientists.

Moriarty tried out the lesson plan with 20 recipients of Stanford’s Hollyhock Fellowship for High School Teachers during the summer of 2014. The program supports early-career teachers who work in schools that serve low-income students.

“We had to continuously solve problems,” says Sara Heaps, who teaches eighth grade science and high school environmental science at Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy in Palo Alto, California. Her group of ants did not behave the way she and her classmates had expected. “It was fun to hypothesize why [they behaved this way],” Heaps said. The lesson plan struck an ideal balance between structure and flexibility, she said.

Moriarty said the lesson worked seamlessly, although she had doubted that the teachers would find enough ants on Stanford’s campus for the plan’s activities. But when the teachers returned from a 30-minute lunch break, the teachers’ own search techniques had paid off: They had collected plenty of ants.

Janet Carlson directs Stanford’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching. The lesson plan situates the ant investigation within standards for teaching science and engineering practices. The U.S. National Research Council developed these Next Generation Science Standards.

Leslie Willoughby is an intern at Stanford News Service.

Media Contacts

Deborah M. Gordon, Biology: (650) 725-6364,
Tammy Moriarty, Education: (858) 245-1820
Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,