Using Termites to Learn the Scientific Method This

Using Termites to Learn the Scientific Method This
Using Termites to Learn the Scientific Method
This is an inquiry based lesson plan used to teach students how to employ the scientific method.
Students will learn all steps of the scientific method and use them to explore the behavior of
termites. A formal lab report will help ensure that students understand the scientific method.
Primary Learning Outcomes
Students will learn the steps of the scientific method. Students will be able to use the steps in the
scientific method to explore the behavior of termites.
Assessed Georgia Performance Standards
SCSh2. Students will use standard safety practices for all classroom laboratory and field
SCSh3. Students will identify and investigate problems scientifically.
SCSh4. Students use tools and instruments for observing, measuring, and manipulating scientific
equipment and materials.
SCSh5. Students will demonstrate the computation and estimation skills necessary for analyzing
data and developing reasonable scientific explanations.
SCSh6. Students will communicate scientific investigations and information clearly.
SCSh7. Students analyze how scientific knowledge is developed.
SCSh8. Students will understand important features of the process of scientific inquiry.
SB4. Students will assess the dependence of all organisms on one another and the flow of energy
and matter within their ecosystems.
There is a chemical in ink from ball point pens that closely resembles pheromones secreted by
termites. Thus the termites will follow the ink as if it were a trail left by one other members of
the colony. This is quite remarkable—and your students will have fun!
Step: 1 Duration: 20-30 minutes
Instructor should collect termites from a wooded area. Look for logs lying on the ground. Be
careful! There may be spiders, insects, or reptiles present there as well. Store the termites in a
container with moist soil, wood, and air holes. If stored properly, termites may be kept several
Step: 2 Duration: 15-20 minutes
Provide students with handout containing background information on termites. Allow time for
the students to read the handout. Discuss the handout with the students, emphasizing
pheromones as the means of communication between individuals in the species.
Step 3: 5-10 minutes
Review scientific method using handout provided or notes provided by the instructor. A fresh
review on the day of the experiment will help the students retain the information necessary for
use during the lab.
Step 4: 60-90 minutes
Students should follow procedures in the lab handout. A group of 2-4 students will work best.
Students will observe termites and use observations to develop testable hypotheses. The group
will then choose one of these hypotheses to test and develop an experiment to test this
hypothesis. They will gather data, draw conclusions, and provide a formal lab report to the
instructor. Some example questions: 1) What color ink do the termites follow the longest? 2)
What brand of ink do the termites follow the longest? 3) How many termites choose to follow
blue ink over black ink?
Step 5: 40-60 minutes (Optional)
Students will present their experimental design to the class, data, and conclusions from their
experiment. This step will help with scientific communication skills.
Materials and Equipment
For each group: 6 pens (red, blue, and black Papermate and Bic brand pens), white paper small
brush, 10-20 termites in a petri dish
Total Duration
20-30 minutes teacher prep before class collecting termites
80-120 minutes in class (no presentation of results)
20-30 minutes teacher prep before class collecting termites
120-180 minutes in class (presentation of results)
Students will be assessed based on their ability to work in a group setting and produce a formal
lab report that demonstrates their understanding of the scientific method. Students may also be
required to present experiment, data, and conclusions to the class; this would be used to assess
their ability to effectively communicate scientific concepts.
Some students may choose to test how long the termites remain on the line of ink or how long it
takes the termites to find the ink when placed in the middle of the paper, so you might want to
have some stop watches on hand.
Biology of Subterranean Termites in the Eastern United States
Adapted from
Daniel R. Suiter, UGA, Susan C. Jones, Ohio State University, and Brian T. Forschler, UGA
Subterranean termites are social insects that live in societies whose members are mostly
immature individuals. Their colonies, which can contain thousands to millions of termites, are
formidable, even though each individual termite is soft-bodied and delicate. In nature,
subterranean termites are closely associated with the soil habitat where they tunnel to locate
water and food (e.g., wood, fallen logs, and other cellulose-containing materials). Termites
excavate galleries throughout their food as they consume it. Subterranean termites construct
aboveground earthen runways (shelter tubes) that protect them from the drying effects of air as
well as from natural enemies, such as ants. Termites are very susceptible to desiccation, and thus
they are dependent on moisture sources.
Distribution and Economic Impact
In the United States, subterranean termites are found in every state except Alaska (Fig. 1). They
are most abundant in warmer climates, where structural infestations are common. Subterranean
termites are the most economically important wood-destroying pests in the United States. They
are, however, important components of natural forest ecosystems, where they break down
cellulose. Unfortunately, when land is cleared for human habitation the termites present may
eventually pose a threat to the wood used in construction because their natural food resources
have been removed. Nationwide, treatment and prevention of subterranean termite infestations
costs approximately $2 billion per year. In Georgia alone, residents spend over $200–300 million
per year for the remedial control of existing infestations and the repair of damage that
subterranean termites cause to homes and other structures.
Subterranean Termite Biology
Figure 1. Subterranean termites are
found in all states except Alaska and
are most abundant in the south and
southeastern United States.
Social Insects
Termites, like other social insects, are characterized by:
cooperation in the rearing of young,
sharing of resources (i.e., food, water and shelter),
an overlapping of generations (i.e., eggs are laid year-round), and
a division of labor, characterized by the presence of one or more castes, or life forms.
Eastern subterranean termites have a well ordered social system with amazing engineering
capabilities and acute survival instinct; they obtain moisture from the soil and moist
decaying timber, and communicate using pheromone signals. Termites are insects that live
in loosely associated societies called colonies. A colony is a collection of individuals that
cooperate in the rearing of young and that share resources (e.g., food and shelter). Termite
colonies are comprised of a few adults (the king and queen) while the majority of the population
are immature forms that are represented by approximately equal numbers of males and females.
What Subterranean Termites Need to Survive: Food, Water, and Warmth
Food of subterranean termites consists of anything made of or containing cellulose. Termites
feed primarily on dead wood and wood by-products, and only under unusual circumstances will
they feed on other living or dead plant tissue. However, in their search for food, termites can
tunnel into and damage a variety of noncellulose materials (e.g., rigid foam-board insulation,
sheetrock, etc.).
Moisture is the most important factor limiting subterranean termite activity and distribution in
the environment. Termites are thin-skinned insects that quickly dry out when exposed to the
desiccating effects of wind or dry air and they require a constant supply of moisture. In suburban
areas where irrigation occurs regularly, and soil moisture is not limited, colonies are thought to
be more active.
Temperature has a strong influence on daily and seasonal fluctuations in termite activity.
Subterranean termites will not forage for food when topsoil temperatures are either too hot or too
cold. They adjust their activity to seek suitable temperatures and will migrate deeper in the soil
when surface temperatures are unsuitable. Foraging termites can also detect temperature
gradients in the soil, and under extremely hot conditions seek out thermal “shadows” cast by
vegetation, and presumably structures. When temperatures near the soil surface are too hot and
the soil becomes dry, termite foraging may be significantly reduced.
Scientific Method Lab Exercise Exploring Termite Behavior
Today we are going to put into practice the scientific method. You will not find this method
particularly foreign; in fact, the first steps of the process are used regularly by most people as
they live out their daily lives. Below you will find a review of this process that will help enable
you to perform this lab exercise.
Step 1: Observation
Be aware of and curious about the occurrences in your surroundings. Be a keen observer and
record your observations. You will use your observations to help design your experiment.
Step 2: Develop a Question
Raise a question about what you observed. The question raised must have a “simple,” concrete
answer that can be obtained by performing an experiment. For example, “What color light is
optimal for plant growth?” could be answered by measuring plant growth under different lighting
conditions, but “Why do plants grow better under red and blue light rather than green light?”
couldn’t really be answered by carrying out a simple experiment.
Step 3: Develop a Hypothesis
Propose a hypothesis which explains what has been observed within the context of current
knowledge. Your hypothesis is an “educated guess” about what you observed or what you
want to test. This is a tentative answer to the question: a testable explanation for what you
observed. Keep a record of your hypothesis and reasons why you developed this guess.
Step 4: Test your Hypothesis
Devise an experiment which will substantiate or refute your hypothesis. Your experiment
should allow you to collect enough data to eliminate extraneous factors except the one in
question (variable). Remember to control certain factors that may affect the outcome of your
experiment if they were not kept constant.
Step 5: Accepting, Rejecting, or Modifying your Hypothesis
Based on the experiment performed, you much logically determine whether your data supports
your hypothesis or casts doubts on its validity. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. An
experiment which refutes a hypothesis can often be more enlightening than one which
substantiates the present understanding of a problem (or question you posed).
Scientific Method Lab Exercise Exploring Termite Behavior
6 pens (red, blue, and black Papermate and Bic brand pens)
White paper
Small brush
Termites in a Petri dish
1. Read the provided information on subterranean termites and the scientific method.
2. Using the pens, draw lines on the paper.
3. Place several termites on the paper using the brush to keep them from straying.
4. Observe the termites carefully and write down all observations.
5. Develop several hypotheses based on your observations.
6. Develop a procedure so you can test one of your hypotheses.
7. Write out your protocol and have the teacher approve the protocol before performing the
experiment. Remember:
What is your variable? ______________________________________________
What will be your constants (controls)? _________________________________
How many times will you repeat this experiment? _________________________
8. Conduct your experiment.
9. Collect data from your experiment.
10. Analyze your data.
11. Organize your data into appropriate tables or graphs.
12. Draw conclusions. Questions to consider when drawing conclusions about your
Do the results support your hypothesis? _________________________________
Were there any variations in the observed behaviors? ______________________
Were there any surprises? ____________________________________________
Based on your data, would you accept, reject, or modify your hypothesis?
Explain. __________________________________________________________
13. Write up a lab report including all steps of the scientific method, detailed explanations of
procedures used in your experiment (so that someone else could repeat your experiment),
include all data you gathered in an organized presentation, and conclusions about your
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