Insect Outreach

crowd of people

Crowds in the Tucson Festival of Books Science Pavilion

Because I’m part of an insect outreach program this semester, I gave been doing a ton of outreach events!  I’ve had kids come to the Insect Discovery classroom from their schools and I run the workshop myself one day a week.  I’ve gone to schools to do presentations in classrooms and at science days.  I’ve worked with the Boys and Girls  Club after hours with this cool program where the kids learn about nature through photography.  And last weekend I manned a booth at the Tucson Festival of Books.  I’ve carried insects between the building where Insect Discovery lives and my car so many times that I really ought to be given a personal parking space near the building.  (You can make that happen for me right?  Because the parking situation near that building sucks…)  The poor bugs have been jostled and prodded and dropped and squeezed and screamed at more time than I can count.  But it’s SO MUCH FUN!  I thought I might share some of my experiences so that can all see how much fun I’m having – and how much fun it can be to do these sorts of activities yourself.  I’m going to focus on the Festival of Books booth because I was actually able to take photos.


The Insect Discovery booth at the Tucson Festival of Books

I was at the booth at the Festival for 7 hours straight.  It was a little intense.  Toward the end of the day it started getting really warm too.  Luckily, I had a crew of 4 undergrads from Insect Discovery rotating through and helping me out.  The best part: being able to stick them out in the sun while I cowered in the shade inside the tent all day!  Actually, I rarely have another person with me when I do outreach events, so it’s fantastic when there are other people with me.  I don’t have to answer EVERY question the visitors have and I can actually breathe now and again.  I get to take photos.  Having the Insect Discovery students with me was fun because they have learned a lot about bugs in class and were able to test their knowledge as we were asked a steady barrage of questions.  We also had enough people so that everyone could take a break now and again and we could have several different activities going on in the booth at once.  And did I mention that all the undergrads who volunteered were there during spring break?  That guy in the red shirt at the right of the photo above was even a friend of the girl in the black tank top, visiting over his spring break!  Fantastic!

inside booth

This kid is clearly unsure about the live stuff on the table!

For our booth, we brought several things that we use in the Insect Discovery workshops we run during the week.  We didn’t give anything away, which turned some people off (the swag at the festival was pretty impressive and people tend to get a bit greedy), but we had a very steady stream of visitors the whole time I was there.  In our booth, people had the opportunity to rummage about in a big box of soil that is home to a variety of decomposers (omg do kids loooove the millipedes!), a big fancy display of Arizona insects, a camouflage activity where they tried to find the insects in the photos, a bunch of live ladybugs that they used to determine whether all ladybugs of the same species look exactly the same or not (no, they do not, in case you’re wondering), and a couple of boxes of pinned insects where they were asked to find the two insects that were exactly the same out of a group of about 25-30 insects.  We also had a cage of Madagascar hissing cockroaches and we took turns holding them and showing them off all day.  People could also pet or hold the roaches if they wanted to.

There are things I like about these kinds of events and things that I don’t like.  There are definite downsides.  People asking if they can have a ladybug or one of the camouflage photos all day because nearly every other booth was giving things away – not cool.  Being out in the sun on one of the first really warm days – not cool.  The super squeamish parents who don’t let their kids play with the bugs or muck about in the dirt, even if they really want to – not cool.  People who refuse to believe you when they tell you about some super scary poisonous insect they saw that shoots venom out of their feet and can kill you just by looking at you (okay, bit of an exaggeration, but I hear stories like this from parents all the time!), in spite of your clearly superior entomological knowledge and your ability to show them evidence of your claims via your smart phone – not cool.

decomposer box

Kids were crowded around the decomposer box all day! One of my students is showing off a millipede, visible across the top of his hand..

But there are so many fantastic things about these sorts of events too!  I met two kids who wanted to become entomologists.  One of them was a high school girl, so I could totally relate to her and give her encouragement and advice about where to go to college for entomology.  I was a high school girl who wanted to be an entomologist once!  The other budding entomologist was a 11-12 year old boy.  That boy = brilliant!  He asked one of my Insect Discovery students whether the Hercules beetle in the box was a Grant’s Hercules beetle.  I thought the, “Uhhhh…  I think you should ask Chris that question…” response he got from my student was very entertaining.  I ended up talking to the kid for a good 20 minutes until his mom literally dragged him away.  I swear he knew more about Arizona’s insect species than most of my fellow entomology grad students!  And yes, he did know a few species that I did not.  Super cool.

Lots and lots of kids wanted to hold the roach, and lots of their parents were willing to let them, even if they didn’t want a thing to do with the roach themselves.  I also got to hear all of these great fisherman style stories where people told me about giant insects that were “thiiiiiis big!” with hugely exaggerated lengths.  The kids in our booth were enthralled by the live things and almost all of them did all the activities.   All in all, I think we probably had close to 1000 people come through the booth while I was there and nearly every one of them walked away having learned something new.  I consider that a success!

Toward the end of the day, we were upstaged by another event.  In the back of our tent were 100 bottles of Diet Coke and 50 or 60 rolls of mint Mentos.  You probably know where this is going…  They rounded up 100 kids, gave each a bottle of Coke and half a roll of Mentos, and had everyone make two big circles.  One of the circles was right outside our tent, so I got to see 50 kids drop their Mentos into their bottles of Coke at one time!  And if you don’t know what happens when Mentos and Coke interact, I got it on video:

Fabulous!  Except for the one kid who set his off a few seconds before the main explosion (at 32 seconds, off to the left) who had his head directly over the bottle when he dropped the candy in and got slammed in the face by exploding Coke.  Poor little guy…

The Festival was a ton of fun and I wandered back to my car in this euphoric state of happiness that I can only get from a really successful outreach event.  Even though I’m terribly, terribly busy this semester trying to write my dissertation and teach both undergrads and K-3 kids in Insect Discovery workshops and outreach events, I’m loving every minute of it.   Semesters like this remind me that I am on the right career path because I can’t imagine anything else making me feel this good.


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