Learning through experience, not textbooks

For the past three months, I have been studying a species of ant called Temnothorax rugatulus. More specifically, I study how rugatulus interact with one another and choose new homes. I had never even seen the homes they live in outside of the lab — until last weekend.

I went on a trip to the mountains of Globe for my first ever field collection trip. I learned more in three hours of cracking open boulders looking for ant colonies than I have in three months of meticulous research in the laboratory.

I suffered from what I will call “labnesia” — forgetting that the species I spend my days learning about in the lab and in books exist first and foremost in nature.

Think of everything we’ve learned about nature through lectures in a classroom. Think of how many disembodied concepts we have been forced to master without ever having seen them applied in nature.

Can we really be experts, or even trust our judgment on these concepts if we only experience nature through words and pictures in a textbook?

Better writers than myself have written about a need for society to reconnect with nature, and I will leave that wider argument to them.

I hope instead to beg all current or future scientists with their vast stores of knowledge, to follow my footsteps and take any opportunity to venture into nature — to apply their knowledge to what they see and gain wisdom from it. Without my previous knowledge of the species of ant I was going out to find, seeing them in nature would have been a nice but rather fruitless experience.

Instead, I knew exactly the questions to ask. What other fauna live in boulders alongside rugatulus? Giant terrifying spiders and formic acid spraying Formica ants. Why is it so important to hide in the tiniest rock fissures? Also, giant terrifying spiders and acid spraying Formica ants.

For the first time, the collection of facts I have built up concerning rugatulus became an actual understanding of the little critters.

All future and current scientists, or even amateur nature enthusiasts can benefit from going out into the wild for the same reasons.

Science captivates us because it can describe and explain nature.

If we have any desire to contribute to this growing understanding of our magical natural world, we need to remove ourselves from the confines of the classroom or the library and get our hands dirty in the field.

Or at the very least learn to not cry in front of everyone just because you lost a game of ant Minesweeper and that fissure you just cracked open is actually full of angry spiders.

All very valuable lessons.


Reach the columnist at Jacob.evans@asu.edu or follow him at @jacobevansSP


Want to join the conversation? Send an email to opiniondesk.statepress@gmail.com. Keep letters under 300 words and be sure to include your university affiliation. Anonymity will not be granted.

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.