When you're doing hands-on learning, you start asking questions and learn what you might not have known that you didn't know.

Gregory Pask

Curiosity can be a great motivator, says Professor Greg Pask, biology. Exploring and learning more about the world around them can help students thrive, especially when they home in on a subject that is most meaningful to them.

"Scientific inquiry in research or the classroom can be fully motivated and fruitful when you pursue your interests," says Pask. "It's easier when you're doing science as opposed to hearing how science is done. When you're doing hands-on learning, you start asking questions, and learn what you might not have known that you didn't know. You can get to a more detailed level of learning."

Whether students are observing the behaviors of ants or collecting neurophysiological data from crayfish, experiential learning will remain relevant to them, even if they find that their passion lies somewhere other than invertebrates.

"They'll get experience working with tools and doing basic research," he says. "Those skills that they learn are valuable no matter what scientific field they're getting into."

Pask's own career path was guided by his hands-on experiences. He was studying biology with an eye toward medical school, but an influential lab experience shifted his interest to molecular biology. He then discovered a mosquito lab while in grad school. "That's when I really fell in love with insects and little things in nature that you have to look a little harder to find," he says.

His research interest has since transitioned into ants. He's specifically focused on trying to better understand how their sensory systems — such as their highly sophisticated sense of smell — enable them to function in complex societies. "We're trying to find the molecular receptors that dictate these behaviors," Pask says.

By determining exactly how ants respond to different stimuli, Pask and other researchers hope to find ways to interfere with harmful insect behaviors and assist actions considered beneficial.

"Those things translate very well across different insects," Pask says. "Our ant research can serve as a model for how honey-bee colonies function. Honey bees and other beneficial insects can often be overlooked, and anything we can do to help them is great for human quality of life."

Posted Oct. 6, 2017