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Ants tunneling 'like crazy' in shuttle

By Marsha Walton
CNN

A colony of harvester ants in space are not behaving as expected.
A colony of harvester ants in space are not behaving as expected.

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(CNN) -- Average high school science class: read textbook, answer questions at the end of the chapter, take test on Friday. Repeat.

Fowler High School science class, Syracuse, New York: Design experiment using harvester ants to be part of a space shuttle flight. Take field trips to Colorado for testing, and the Kennedy Space Center to watch launch. Enjoy international media attention during mission of shuttle Columbia.

It was a long time coming, but students from this math and science magnet school now are watching their idea, their design and their ants tunneling like crazy in space.

"We did this for a lot of different reasons," said 17-year old Abby Golash, now a senior at Fowler High. "It's not applied science. We're not going to find a cure for cancer, but there may be a lot of indirect results," she said.

"Someday something we learned may help in an ecosystem in space, or even on another planet."

Along with the students from Syracuse, Columbia is carrying experiments designed by students from China, Japan, Israel, Australia, and Liechtenstein. And the value of each project goes beyond just what they learn from their ants, or plants or fish onboard.

"The real value is connecting what kids do in math and science to a bigger world," said Eric Spina, and engineering professor at Syracuse University and an adviser to the project.

The brainstorming, designs and redesigns help students realize that math and science are major parts of technological achievements, he said, whether it's part of manufacturing widgets or blasting off into space.

Spina says the students learned both the joys and the disappointments of scientific investigation during this multiyear project. The biggest kick for some of the students was a trip to Florida to watch the shuttle lift off.

"It was incredible, I've never seen anything like it," said Golash. Three and a half years of work taking off in three and a half minutes," she said.

Hypothesis-reality gap

There were also plenty of "reality checks" during the design of the experiment. The mission with the student experiments was postponed 19 times.

The delays gave students in the United States and other countries time to make design adjustments, and to rethink many aspects of their experiments.

The Fowler students picked an experiment with ants, rather than plants, because they wanted to see some activity in space. They have been following the ants' progress on the web at http://www.starsacademy.com/sts107.

The students and their teachers also have learned that sometimes the best thought-out hypothesis does not pan out in reality.

"The ants are doing great. They're moving around like crazy, tunneling, and we're seeing a clear difference between the tunnels in space and on Earth," said Spina.

"We predicted that the ants would tunnel a lot slower in microgravity, but we're finding out they're moving a lot faster," said Golash. The students have a control group of ants at their school, living in a similar environment except with gravity.

After the shuttle returns from its scheduled 16-day flight in early February, the young scientists will have 30 days to put together a preliminary report.

Their "Ants in Space" experiment was sponsored by SPACEHAB, an aerospace company that has worked with NASA for many years to design and build hardware for space experiments.

So how does this all compare with answering study questions at the end of a textbook?

"What we're doing hasn't been done before. There aren't any 'predicted results' to look for," Golash said.

Spina hopes that within the next few years many high schools will become involved somehow in the space program.

"You have to get the kids intimately involved. They can't just sit and watch or sit and listen," Spina said.

Even today, he says, math and science tend to scare off many students in the crucial middle school years. But he says a project like "Ants in Space" is enough to convince them that you can do pretty cool things with algebra, biology and chemistry.


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