For a group of 8-10 year olds from an English elementary school, a group of parents are proud. Why? Because their sons and daughters produced a science project whose results were published in the most recent issue of Biological Bulletin, a fairly prestigious accomplishment even for scientists who do research for a living. Essentially, these children conducted an experiment in which they trained bees to recognize a color pattern in order to be rewarded with sugar. Then, they rotated the pattern and conducted a “control” test, in which the bees chose the correct flowers 90% of the time. Next, they changed the color of the flowers with the reward to a neutral color, but kept them in the same place/pattern as the original test. This time, the bees chose the correct flowers only 31% of the time, suggesting that the bees did not just learn to go to a specific spot in the pattern regardless of color. The final experiment changed the pattern in which the reward flowers were arranged from being in the center of the squares to being at the 4 corners. The idea here was to see if the bees had learned to go to the colored flowers that numbered the fewest (4 vs 8 ) in the pattern. The bees only chose the correct flowers 40% of the time, suggesting that they did not learn to go to the fewest numbered color. In all, they were able to show that the bees recognized a combined color/pattern combination, but that when the color was changed, or the flowers were rearranged in a different pattern, the bees were not able to recognize the reward flowers.
I think their concluding paragraph of the discussion sums it up best:
“Before doing these experiments we did not really think a lot about bees and how they are as smart as us. We also did not think about the fact that without bees we would not survive, because bees keep the flowers going. So it is important to understand bees. We discovered how fun it was to train bees. This is also cool because you do not get to train bees everyday. We like bees. Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. (Bees—seem to—think!)”
The operative words in that paragraph: SCIENCE IS COOL AND FUN. Now getting kids interested in science is no easy feat, but its something we often take for granted as scientists because when we were young we were actually interested in science. But it brings to the point the idea that no child is too young to learn about the scientific process. And it also illustrates that if you make science creative, exciting, and fun, the kids will be interested, even at a young age. It certainly puts things into perspective for me, since when I deal with children at that age, I typically just read a story book about scallops and bring animals. But if you can engage them in the process, they have fun with it, maybe even more fun that just touching some marine animals. And I am sure these students feel a great sense of accomplishment. Perhaps its time, as scientists, for us to be trying to reach children at a younger age. I think this is what President Obama’s STEM initiative is all about (you can read more about STEM here). And I also think its time to re-evaluate how we teach science to young children. Maybe experiential education needs to start much, much earlier, to foster thinking, new ideas, and scientific growth.
Blackawton, P., Airzee, S., Allen, A., Baker, S., Berrow, A., Blair, C., Churchill, M., Coles, J., Cumming, R., Fraquelli, L., Hackford, C., Hinton Mellor, A., Hutchcroft, M., Ireland, B., Jewsbury, D., Littlejohns, A., Littlejohns, G., Lotto, M., McKeown, J., O’Toole, A., Richards, H., Robbins-Davey, L., Roblyn, S., Rodwell-Lynn, H., Schenck, D., Springer, J., Wishy, A., Rodwell-Lynn, T., Strudwick, D., & Lotto, R. (2010). Blackawton bees Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1056