It was the first day of class. I arrived well before my students, in time to place a plastic tray in front of every other seat, and spoon several mealworms onto each tray.
These small creatures packed a huge punch: The squeals. The squeaks. The wows. The eeeeews. The disgust. The curiosity. The horror. The intrigue.
Most of all, the novelty of living things.
My students—Masters Degree candidates enrolled in my science methods course—had not been exposed to living things (other than themselves) in the classroom, until now. This was trial-by-fire.
My point in the mealworm surprise was to drive home the idea that science is three-dimensional. It involves more than books, words, and websites. Not that these features of science learning are unimportant, but that they are not the only relevant endeavors. Science, after all, is a “verb.” More plainly, science is doing, and mealworms are a great way to get the doing started.
For a small investment, about two cents per mealworm at your local pet store, a world of learning experiences opens—experiences that engage kids in sound science processes and solid science content. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
Here are a few ideas to show what I mean.
Science Content: Animals meet their need for food and water in their habitat.
Activity: Make a habitat for mealworms
The Set-up: Use a clear plastic cup as a habitat. A pan or plastic tub could also work, but mealworms like to burrow down, so a clear container makes it easier to keep eyes on them. Line the bottom of the container with oatmeal, bran, or crushed cereal. This is the food. Then add pieces of apple or potato. These will provide the mealworms with all the water they need. Punch holes in a top for the container and put it in place.
Engagement: Observe the habitat daily. Observe at the same time for several days in a row. Keep a mealworm journal. Note activity in the habitat. Note changes. Then observe at a different time of day for a week. Compare observations.
Science Process: Observe
Activity: Observe a mealworm.
Background: Help kids generate a list of questions that can be answered by observing a mealworm. Then, place a mealworm on a dark background, such as a tray or sheet of construction paper.
Engagement: Observe the mealworm. Use a hand lens to get a closer look. Record observations in a labeled diagram. Note answers to the questions generated earlier and new questions that came to mind.
Science Content: Some animals undergo metamorphosis during their life cycle.
Activity: Observe metamorphosis.
Background: Most science texts show pictures of caterpillars becoming butterflies and tadpoles becoming frogs. But until you see metamorphosis firsthand, it all remains pretty abstract. Mealworms will take you there.
The Set-up: Create and maintain several small mealworm habitats. Place one mealworm in each habitat. Assign responsibilities for replacing fruit that becomes moldy and adding flakes or oats as needed. Within four to six weeks, students will observe the larva stage mealworm become a pupa and then a (nonflying) beetle.
Engagement: Observe the mealworm once a day. On the first day, make a drawing of the mealworm and date it. On a day when physical changes are noted, make and date another drawing until the metamorphosis is complete. At that point, some kids may want to take the next step toward multi-generational habitats. Who’s to say…..
Science Process: Infer/predict
Activity: Determine a mealworm’s response to its environment.
Background: Kids can explore any aspect of the environment, but the mealworm’s response to light is a great place to start because it happens fairly quickly and is easily observed. Suggest that kids construct a research field consisting of a surface, such as a tray, with a cover over half of it to create a dark space.
Engagement: Place several mealworms in the light area of the tray and observe them for five or six minutes. Record observations of their behavior. Then repeat with other mealworms. Repeat again placing mealworms in the dark area. Keep a detailed account of all observations. What can your students infer about a mealworm’s preference for light and dark?
Science Content: Mealworms are decomposers.
Activity: Observe a banana peel in a mealworm habitat
Background: Decomposers are organisms that break down dead plants and animals. This process is not easily observed in a natural environment, but can be seen with the help of mealworms.
Engagement: Place a banana peel in a mealworm habitat. What happens to the banana peel? How long will it take for the first hole to appear? Make predictions. Carry out observations. See whose predictions come closest. Then connect to print (or digital). Read about the role decomposers play in the environment.
Science Process: A fair test
Activity: Observe the effect of diet on mealworms.
Background: The notion of a fair test is at the very heart of science investigations. Yet, it’s no easy concept to grasp in the abstract. In a fair test, all variables are controlled except the one the investigator is exploring. Here is an easy-to-carry-out fair test.
The Set-up: Place the same number of mealworms in several containers that are identical except for food. Line one container with flour and bran, another with cornmeal and bran, and a third with oatmeal and bran. Place an apple slice in each container. Line up the containers in the same location.
Engagement: Observe the mealworms daily. Record and date all observations. How many of the mealworms become adults? How long does the metamorphosis take? Diet is the only difference in these environments. What effect did it seem to have?
The list of activities could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. These small creatures pack a huge punch, indeed.