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Iimbovane ant project treats learners at Scifest Africa 2011

Did you know that ants have hair on their heads? Or that some species of ants loot the eggs of other ant species, bringing them back to their own nests and then forcing them into slavery? These were among the fascinating facts that were part of hands-on workshop entitled “Antastic!” held at Scifest Africa 2011 by team members of the Iimbovane Outreach Project.

The Iimbovane Outreach Project is an educational outreach initiative of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) based at Stellenbosch University, and funded by AfriSam, C·I·B and Rand Merchant Bank Fund.

It was the first time that the Iimbovane Outreach Project was selected to be part of the 600 Scifest events and activities which includes exhibitions, lectures, hands-on workshops, excursions, laser-shows, quizzes and whiz-bang science shows.

Scifest Africa, South Africa’s national science festival was held from 4 to 10 May 2011 in Grahamstown, and participants included learners from Grade 8 to Grade 10. It is a fun-filled event specially styled to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics accessible to and of interest to everyday people. This year, the cross-cultural theme was “Science across cultures” which highlighted the contributions of different cultures to science education and to science as a whole.

Learners that attended “Antastic!” left no stone unturned.

Armed with microscopes and a complete “mini travel laboratory”, team members of the Iimbovane Outreach Project set out to teach participants about ant diversity and the important role that ants fulfill in the ecosystem. Hands-on activities such as ant hunting, demonstrations and microscopes were all part of the workshop. After learning some basic ant facts, learners were asked to hunt for as many different ant species as they could find. Participants left no stone unturned and came back with ants from a variety of species. Participants were talked through the basics of a scientific key and how to use a microscope to identify ants down to the Genus level. Participants were then given the opportunity to identify the ants they had caught, in addition to a selection of ants brought from Iimbovane ant laboratory.

A Grade 9 Life Science educator, Brenda Fineberg, commented: “I enjoyed this one — it’s a nice introduction to the use of microscopes in the biology classroom.”

The workshop concluded with information about the range of study fields in the biological sciences at Stellenbosch University.

Mametse Nchabeleng, a Saint Mary’s DSG learner, described her visit to the workshop as weird but very interesting. “Everybody squashes ants, so it’s interesting to know people are actually studying ants and that ants can tell us so much about biodiversity”, she said.

According to Iimbovane Outreach Project manager Dorette du Plessis it was an excellent opportunity to show the South African science education community what is being done at the Centre for Invasion Biology (C·I·B), and how the Iimbovane Outreach Project is helping Western Cape learners to understand biodiversity.

“Antastic!” walked away with the prize for “Best Workshop – Outreach” at Scifest Africa 2011.