Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Ant Hills: Materials Science and Engineering
While I was on sabbatical at the University of Ghana this year, I used to walk to and from work at the Faculty of Engineering Sciences (Torto Chemistry Building) on the Legon campus. One of the things that struck me was the several huge ant hills along the way. I realized that I had no idea how they were constructed. I started asking anyone I could find what they knew about the science and technology of ant hills.
At the same time, I was thinking about how to convey to my students some of the central concepts of materials science and engineering: processing/structure/properties/behavior. How do you teach the concept of microstructure in an environment without microscopes?
Eventually, I assigned my students a project.
They were to go out in teams of 2 into the field (dividing the campus into 4 quadrants, and sampling 2 ant hills from each quadrant, comparing and contrasting them). They were also to read four relevant articles I managed to locate: 1) J. Korb, “Experimental heating of Macrotermes bellicosus (Isoptera, Macrotermitinae) mounds: what role does microclimate play in influencing mound architecture?" Insectes sociaux, Vol. 45 (1998) pp. 335-342; 2) P. Jouquet, “The soil structural stability of termite nests: role of clays in Macrotermes bellicosus (Isoptera, Macrotermitinae) mound soils,” The European Journal of Soil Biology Vol. 40 (2004) pp. 23-29 (available online from Science Direct); 3) M. Luscher, “Air conditioned termite nests” The Scientific American, Vol. 205 (1961), pp. 138-145; and 4) P. R. Hesse, “A Chemical Physical Study of the Soils of Termite in East Africa,” The Journal of Ecology, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jul., 1955), pp. 449-461, published by British Ecological Society.
The students had fun with this assignment. One of the lessons that profoundly affected some of them was recognizing that ants, without huge budgets, fancy equipment, or fanfare, are able to build such efficient and complex structures. It encouraged them to realize that, with creativity and hard work, it is possible to do something useful and long-lasting even if one has seemingly limited resources.