Teaching 2nd Graders Science With Insects

Madagascar hissing cockroaches

Hissing cockroaches!

As in most past semesters of my graduate school existence, I’m currently earning my living by teaching.  This time around though, I’m doing something a little different.  Rather than teaching college undergrads and grads, I’m teaching undergrads and 2nd graders!

My university offers some undergraduate-led biology outreach programs.  There’s Sonoran Desert Discovery where students learn about the ecology of the desert we live in.  There’s a Marine Discovery course where students learn about marine habitats (and people give me a hard time for teaching Arizona’s students about aquatic insects!  Sheesh…).  The program I am involved with is, of course, Insect Discovery.  In all of these courses, college students learn to teach science to K-8 grade students by learning how to lead a series of age appropriate, inquiry-based science activities.  After a period of a month or so in which the undergrads are trained and practice teaching the lessons among their peers, K-8 teachers bring their classes to the university.  The undergrads enrolled in the course teach the elementary kids science by leading the inquiry-based activities that they’ve learned to teach.


One of two Insect Discovery classrooms. It's hard making a room designed for college science students work for little kids.

I’m very excited to be involved with Insect Discovery!  I first became interested in teaching by teaching entomology to kids, so it feels like I’m coming full circle.  And, this is the first time that I will be teaching other people how to teach.  This is very exciting for me!  Teaching is one of my passions and having an opportunity to train students how to do it is going to be a lot of fun – and a nice change of pace from my usual teaching responsibilities.

Let me tell you a little more how the program works.  Insect Discovery is the brain child of Dr. Kathleen Walker and she is ultimately in charge.  However, she likes to make Insect Discovery a collaborative effort each semester so that all the participants have a good experience.  She has built some measure of flexibility into the program so that the students who participate are able to teach the activities in the manner in which they feel most comfortable.

classroom decor

We tried to spruce the room up by posting a ton of drawings done by former Insect Discovery visitors.

Undergrads enroll in Insect Discovery as one of their classes for the semester.  These students are the preceptors, the ones who will be leading the bulk of the activities with the kids.  For the first quarter of the semester, they learn how to teach the kids who will visit.  We get 1st – 3rd graders in our program, thought most will be 2nd graders as a lot of their science curriculum for the year is based on insects.   The preceptors learn about insects, inquiry-based science, a little about science standards in Arizona, the general format for the activities (we offer 5 activities and the teachers choose 4), and practice teaching the activities.  After the initial training session, they jump right into teaching!  To earn their grades for the semester, they have to participate in the lectures and labs, teach the kids, observe and evaluate the teaching of their peers, and develop a new activity for the kids.  Near the end of the semester, we’ll test the new activities they’ve developed to see which ones work and which ones don’t.  The really good ones may be incorporated into the program next year.

For this class, we also have undergraduate teaching assistants.  These are students who have enrolled in Insect Discovery in the past and wanted to come back to help with the program for another semester.  They help lead the training for the preceptors, are classroom overseers when the kids are visiting, and lead activities themselves.

decomposer box

A decomposer box. This activity involves the kids digging through the dirt!

And then there’s me, the lone grad teaching assistant.  I do a bit of everything!  I’m Kathleen’s co-instructor for the course, teaching some of the activities to the students who will teach the kids.  I will teach the kids the activities myself.  I am one of the administrators of the program, an insect caretaker, and a scheduler.  I’m developing some new activities and incorporating some aquatic insects into the program.  I am the person who will be doing classroom visits to schools.  And one day a week, I will be running the program entirely by myself.  Basically, this is everything I like to do rolled into one fantastic experience: playing with insects, teaching college students, teaching K-12 students, developing curriculum, learning new things, and visiting classrooms to do outreach activities.

So what do the kids do when they visit Insect Discovery?  For one, they get to meet some real scientists, which few of them have ever done.  They’ll get to play with lots of live insects.  They’ll be guided through four of five inquiry-based science lessons.  They’ll learn about decomposers by playing in a box of dirt, petting/holding hissing cockroaches, doing an experiment to figure out what food crickets most like to eat, making observations of live butterflies in a large walk-in cage, developing their own taxonomic scheme for insects while learning about diversity, and learning about adaptations in insects.  My contribution so far has been adding a lesson about giant water bug feeding to the end of the cricket experiment so that the kids will understand that different insects eat different things.  There will be lots of insect touching, drawing, getting dirty, etc.  Basically, I would have died of happiness if I’d gotten to visit Insect Discovery as a kid, fear of insects notwithstanding!

diversity boxes

Kids doing the diversity activity will get a bunch of these boxes and play taxonomist. They'll develop a logical organizational scheme for the bugs they receive.

Because my posts are generally influenced by what I’m doing for work in any given semester, you’ll hear about Insect Discovery again.  At the very least I’m going to post some lesson plans, some for lessons that we teach the kids who come to the university and others that I am developing for classroom visits.  Many of these should be rather easy to do with kids, either at home or in a classroom setting.  For the teachers who read my blog, feel free to poach these ideas as all good teachers do!  I’ll also likely describe how to care for some of the insects we use in the program.  Should be a fun semester – and I’m finally going to get to work on my long-standing goal of posting some lesson plans on my blog!  I hope you’ll enjoy the posts!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com