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Learning from Worms

April showers bring May flowers, or so the saying goes. But if you look closely, you'll find that April showers also bring creepers, slimers, wrigglers, and crawlers out in force. Every student's and every parent's tolerance level for organisms like insects, arthropods, annelids, and isopods varies. But the simple fact is "bugs" are everywhere—and some of them, like many kinds of worms, play an important role in habitat webs and biospheres.

Students can learn a lot about by observing worms and the roles worms play in local habitats. Image: Holding worm, Bigstock.

Did you know that earthworms help continually process the soil in which they live, converting dead matter into nutrients for the soil and tilling the soil so that it's loose and permeable? Worm scientists, or oliochaetologists (OH-lee-o-KEY-tal-o-gists), know! By turning your attention to the dirt and what's crawling around within a soil-based habitat, you and your students can get wise to the value of worms.

Taking a Closer Look

Most classrooms encourage hands-on observation and interaction with different classes of bugs, worms, and insects, a process of acclimation that begins early. Younger students often watch the development of butterflies or cheer on their favorite isopods in ad hoc sow and pill bug races across their tables or through small mazes they've constructed to see how these bugs deal with obstacles. For many students, learning about biology, zoology, ecology, and the environment begins with early bug exploration and bug-based science projects—both in the classroom and at home.

I was at the Exploratorium in San Francisco recently, and an encased biosphere equipped with external viewing scopes encouraged kids to take a closer look at the "microcosm" at play. Whether peering directly through the glass or through a scope, viewers were invited to observe what is really going on in the soil, in the water, and in and around various plants. A casual look didn't immediately reveal anything other than the terrain of the habitat. An impatient viewer might even have said the dome was "empty" when, in fact, it was thriving with life.

If you continued to look, you might suddenly see the dirt in front of you differently and spot, first, a single insect or two. Then, newly aware of the nuances of the habitat, your eyes zoom in on another location, and you see that the habitat is teeming with different kinds of organisms. There were hundreds, or even thousands, of small multi-legged organisms in one section that I was looking at, all visible to the naked eye. I didn't spot them right away even though they were writhing right in front of me. Sometimes all you have to do is really stop and look.

Warming Up to Worms

This April, rain or shine, make time to really look in the natural spaces around your house or at a local park. Turn over a rock or a log. What do you see? Go out in the early morning after a rain and look at the ground. Find anything interesting? There are plenty of buggy projects you can explore with your family to get a better understanding of your local biosphere, but there's a lot to learn by taking an especially close look at worms.

Wiggly worms perform important tasks that are critical to the health and survival of other organisms. Chiefly, many worms are "decomposers." By eating dead plants, worms process the debris and return important nutrients to the soil. At the same time, by tunneling their way through soil, they keep the soil aerated, which allows water and air to enter. Thanks to worms, your plants and vegetables have a better chance of success!

The following Project Ideas offer a number of ways in which you can turn worm hunting into worm observation and informal scientific testing with your kids and students:

Share Your Own Tips for Family Science!

Earth Day is coming up this month. While any day is a great day to talk about ecology and the environment with your students and kids, we especially encourage a bit of extra attention in April. If you do something bug-oriented with your students, we'd love to hear how it went, what you observed, what they learned, and what made it fun. Share your stories by emailing a short summary of your experience to scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org. We may feature your story, activity, or idea in an upcoming newsletter!

Science Buddies' Project Ideas in Zoology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.

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