‘Science is cool and fun,’ say child authors

Published in The Hindu on December 23, 2010

When do children learn science better and take a liking for the subject? Of course, when they learn by doing science experiments, and not by rote learning.

Twenty-five school children from Blackawton Primary School, Devon, U.K. in the 8-10-year age group not only designed an experiment but actually conducted the experiments using bumblebees, observed the results, wrote them up and got it published in a peer-reviewed journal — Biology Letters.

The result

“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding to forage from flowers based on their colour. Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before,” the children state in the paper.

The paper does not have any reference to previous work and has figures drawn by the children using colour pencils. And it is written in their language and not the way journal papers are generally written. “This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before,” they write.

They then go on to write: “It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to solve Sudoku in a couple of years’ time),” best illustrating their way of communicating ideas.

Call it audacity of hope or plain curiosity. But it was their curiosity in the first place that led them to conduct the experiment, and it should not surprise us if one day one of these kids actually ends up training bees to solve some very complicated puzzles, or solve the complex behaviour of the bees.

If the main intention of high school science is to make science interesting and inculcate a scientific temper, and get some children to take up a career in science then this project has fully served the purpose.

But it was not all about fun. Their work produced some significant results never before observed.

The starting point

It all started after R. B. Lotto, from the University College London, and father of a kid in the class spoke about his research on human perception, bumblebees and robots, and then shared his ideas on how science is done. That initial discussion then started taking shape. Dr. Lotto spoke to the head teacher and together they wanted the kids to do some experiment. The fact that Dr. Lotto also runs an outreach programme that gets ordinary people to do actual experiments made things easy.

Dr. Lotto did the initial training of the five bees and the students took over from there.

The sigificance

What makes the work so significant? According to the two neuroscientists (from New York University and University of Exeter, U.K.) who wrote the accompanying commentary, there is a constant competition between the flowers and the bees.

While they need each other, the flowers that produce lesser nectar but still get their pollens dispersed will turn out to be more successful in propagation. Hence bees need to learn to avoid such cheating flowers.

The five bees were trained with two colours — blue and yellow arranged in squares of 4 by 4 with the inner four squares filled with sugar water and the outer 12 squares with salty water. The resulting configuration resembled a crude flower. The inner four squares could be of any colour — blue or yellow.

The experiment

They note the strategies the bees could use to always end up choosing the colour representing sugar water. “One strategy would be to use two rules: (1) go to the middle four flowers in each panel, and (2) ignore the colour. Another strategy would be to go to yellow if surrounded by blue, or blue if surrounded by yellow.”

Though they are 8-10-year-old children, their thinking is surely very matured, logical and thoroughly scientific. And they tested the bees after they were trained. They did not use sugar or salt water during testing. This was to avoid any possible contamination cue.

They found that the bees went to the middle four squares correctly 126 times compared with 13 times when they went to wrong ones (outer squares).

Retesting hypothesis

They did not stop with this. They used green — a totally different colour — in the middle four squares to check if the bees blindly went to the middle ones. “We did this to see whether the bees learned to go to the colours or to the location of the rewarding flowers during the training,” they write.

They found that the bees went to the green middle flowers only 34 times and to the outer yellow/blue flowers 76 times. Basing on simple arithmetic they found that the bees were not guessing by going to the middle four squares.

One more complexity

They added one more complexity to the experiment by not having the middle four squares but the four corner squares filled with sugar water. They observed that the bees did not blindly go the middle four squares nor always choose the corner four squares that were the least in number.

“We conclude that bees can solve puzzles by learning complex rules, but sometimes they make mistakes,” they note.

The evidence

The accompanying commentary notes: “The result is a significant piece of research giving a novel insight into the colour and pattern vision of the bee… The results provide convincing evidence that bees can transpose between learned colour, pattern and spatial cues when encountering changes in a coloured scene.”

The commentary then states: “What is novel in the experiment presented here is that bees learned colour and pattern cues in a spatially complex scene composed of two-coloured local and global patterns.”

The commentary concludes by stating: “The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us.”