Seeing through the eyes of children Scientists identify traits in insects with youths' aid

March 31, 1996|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,SUN STAFF

When entomologist Marty A. Condon had trouble distinguishing among three species of fruit fly, she sought the advice of a rarely consulted group of scientists -- 10 Manchester Elementary fifth-graders.

Not only did the students identify differences among the flies, but they developed a theory that allowed scientists to identify the insects in the Venezuelan jungle accurately.

Now, four years later, the fly -- a variety that feeds on rain forest cucumber -- has been named the Blepharoneura manchesteri or, loosely translated, the eyelash vein fly of Manchester.

"I never forced any of them to do any of this," said Dr. Condon, a Hofstra University scientist who strongly believes that children can help scientists discover identifying traits in insects and solve other problems.

"I dared them to do it, and they took the dare," she said.

That philosophy, which she dubs "Tom Sawyer Science," led her to work with students in the Baltimore-Washington area while working at the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The groups of children who contribute helpful theories to her work will have a fly named after them, Dr. Condon said. Charles Pearce's students at Manchester Elementary are the first.

"They see patterns or elements of patterns that my eye doesn't see," Dr. Condon said. "It's like the ink blots, where some people see vases and others see faces. Different brains see different things."

With the fruit fly, the Manchester students who volunteered for the assignment noticed a pattern within its speckled wings that they called "man sitting down."

The flies that as larvae had fed on a cucumber's seeds had the complete pattern; the two species that ate the plant's flowers were missing either the chair or the man's chest.

"We tried other theories, like measuring the difference between the veins," said Jacob Miller, one of the students who worked with Dr. Condon during the 1991-1992 school year.

Eventually, the girls, who had broken away from the boys, came up with the "man sitting down" theory, said Jacob, 14, now a freshman at North Carroll High.

"They were out to disprove our theory," he said, noting that the debate sometimes escalated into a screaming match between the two groups. "In the end, it turned out they were right."

The next summer, Dr. Condon and her associates were able to accurately identify the flies using "man sitting down" in the Venezuelan forest.

"We had to be able to tell them apart to find out where they live in the field," said Dr. Condon, who is researching the mating patterns of this particular fly and how the rain forest cucumber is affected.

"The things entomologists use to distinguish species is genitalia, and that's difficult to see with a fruit fly," Dr. Condon said, laughing.

The experience has given Jacob a new appreciation for science and a goal to pursue as he continues his education.

"Something finally clicked with him," said Jacob's mother, Sue Miller, noting that her son hadn't really been interested in school before getting involved with the project.

"This child could not wait to get back to school," she said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and he got so involved with it. He had finally found something that he wants to be involved with."

So involved that Jacob keeps in touch with "Dr. Marty" and continues to help with her research. The summer after he finished sixth grade, Jacob began working on a theory about whether the specks indicated a fly's gender; he also worked with Dr. Condon in the laboratory, dissecting his first fruit fly.

At home, he has begun his own research on the tree snails in the woods behind his home.

"The students who are intrigued by the challenge are those who have a little bit of mischief in them," said Dr. Condon, adding that such children could become the best scientists.

"They are bored by the standard things," she said. "They know that everybody knows the answer, so what's the point anyway? Here, they know that I don't know -- that it's not fake."

Her work with students also shows them that "real people do those crazy things that you read about in National Geographic and see on PBS," Dr. Condon said.

Jacob's parents "seem to be encouraging and accept that this is a crazy thing, but that it's OK."

That's a good thing for Jacob, particularly since he intends to make Dr. Condon keep a promise.

"He asked me if he could go to Venezuela with me, and I told him he couldn't go until he's 18," Dr. Condon said. "He didn't forget that."

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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