Friday 5: Why I Love Outreach

Last weekend I participated in the Arizona Insect Festival, the first celebration of insects of its kind hosted by the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona.  It was a really great event (look for a whole post about it soon!), and I really enjoyed it.  After the Festival, I pretty much collapsed in a heap on my couch and got absolutely nothing accomplished for the rest of the day, but it did get me thinking about all the outreach events I’ve done.  I realized two things.  First, I’ve done a lot of outreach events!  Between a whole semester of visiting schools for Insect Discovery (I worked with kids from 18 different schools!), Meet the Beetles last fall, the Tucson Festival of Books in the spring, Big Bugs earlier this month, and the Festival, I have rocked the entomological outreach events the last year!  Second, there are five things that I really love about doing insect outreach events.  And you all know what I do any time I come up with a list of 5 insect-related things…  Friday 5!  Let’s get right to it, shall we?

1. talking to the Public


Crowd at Meet the Beetles last fall. There were so many people there!

I am an entomologist.  It definitely doesn’t apply to all of us, but we tend to be an introverted lot and we can be socially awkward at times.  (What, you don’t regularly talk about parasitic maggots that infest sheep during dinner?)  We are often much more comfortable talking to other entomologists than the average Joe because other entomologists “get” us in a way non-entomologists never will.  However, when you see us at outreach events, we’re absolutely in our element!  Outreach events are super fun because non-entomologists enter our world for a brief period of time and we suddenly become social superstars!  When the event is over, many of us return to our dark offices/labs and return to our quiet lives, but just for those few hours we have a chance to talk about the things we love with a rapt audience.  It’s fantastic!  As an extra bonus, my blog’s been online long enough now that I meet readers at nearly every event I do.  I might not get to spend more than a few seconds talking to you if things are busy, but I do appreciate it when you introduce yourselves.  And I’ll remember you too!

2.  Socializing with Colleagues


Some of the fabulous colleagues I worked with in the Insect Zoo at the Arizona Insect Festival.

This only happens at the bigger events, but it’s really nice to have a chance to interact with a lot of entomologists all at once.  Big events tend to draw people out of the woodwork, so you get to see colleagues you might rarely see otherwise.  Doing outreach gives me an opportunity to talk to people and catch up on new developments in their lives.  I enjoy getting to socialize with other entomologists – and outreach events are a great place to do it!

3.  Playing with Bugs


Who wouldn't want to play with this gorgeous animal? It's a hickory horned devil, or the caterpillar for the regal moth, and totally harmless.

Okay, so I know I do this practically all day every day, but I still really love getting to play with bugs at outreach events.  It’s such a thrill to pull one of the big Lethocerus giant water bugs out of a jar of water and watch it spread its forelegs menacingly or to poke a dragonfly nymph and see it jet around its container.  Visitors also love it when you grab something and pull it out of the water so that they can get a closer look – or hold the insect themselves if they’re brave enough.

4. Getting People Excited About Bugs


This kid was SO excited about that queen caterpillar!

I think I most love doing outreach because I can help get people who’ve never really thought about insects or who have been scared of insects their whole lives excited about something having to do with bugs.  Of course there are some people who say something like, “Ewww!  Bugs!” and keep right on walking, but most people walk away a little bit better informed and a little more enthusiastic about bugs.  It’s a great feeling!

5.  Wardrobe Upgrades


Some of my recent volunteer shirts. The tarantula was actually from the Tucson Festival of Books and not an insect-centered event (though I was part of an insect outreach booth), but I still love it. The tarantula is made up of letters!

There is usually some incentive provided if you volunteer for outreach events.  I love getting tickets to go on tours at places like the Biosphere II or getting to see the Big Bugs sculptures for free.  A lot of the events I’ve done recently have provided t-shirts, so I get a wardrobe upgrade!  It’s always nice to get free t-shirts, especially when they’re covered in bugs.  :)

Does anyone else out there do science outreach events?  If so, I’d love to hear what you love about them!  Fill up the comments section below!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©


Big Bugs at the Desert Botanical Gardens

Way back in April or May I was invited to do an outreach event in Phoenix, one that would require my hauling live giant water bugs 100 miles and sweltering outside for two late summer evenings.  My participation was going to be part of an event held at the Desert Botanical Gardens (a FANTASTIC place!) to open their fall art exhibition.  So why did they want me there?  Because the sculptures were really big insects!  The museum was going to be open from 6-9PM two nights so that visitors could wander the gardens and view the Big Bugs exhibition before the exhibit was officially opened to the public.  As the visitors roamed about, they could learn about insects and other Sonoran Desert animals by stopping at various interpretive stations along the way.  I was going to be in charge of one of the interpretive stations, one featuring aquatic insects from Arizona.  So, the Friday before last, I packed up all the things I wanted to display and drove to Phoenix.

aquatic insect station

My aquatic insect station

The first night I was indoors.  In the same room where people were getting their dinners.  You know what people don’t like?  Being confronted with really big, live insects when they’re hungry and foraging for food!  I still got a fair number of visitors, but I was happy to be moved outside to a much better spot the second night.  I split my table in half.  Half was devoted to Arizona’s giant insects (real ones) in keeping with the theme of the art exhibit.  People could look at live giant water bugs and learn a bit about their parental care behaviors, their feeding behaviors, and how the bugs are eaten with gusto in some parts of the world.  I had a live adult dobsonfly for them to look at and talked about how it started out as a hellgrammite.  I had a chart that showed the relative sizes of some of the biggest insects in the world, including the largest insect ever, a giant griffenfly that roamed the earth over 300 million years ago.  The other half of the table was devoted to Arizona’s aquatic insects and featured many vials of insects from around the state, specimens of the most common aquatic insects in a box, and some bugs in plexiglass boxes the kids could pick up and look at more closely.  All in all, I think I talked to about 600 or 700 people over two nights and it was a lot of fun.

However, I didn’t have a chance to see the sculptures either night of the opening, and that was something I really wanted to do.  I was thankfully granted a pass to return the day after the event to see the exhibition myself.  I am so happy I went back because the sculptures were marvelous!  They were sculpted by an artist named David Rogers, who created his giant insect sculptures from found natural materials such as wood, bark, twigs, etc.  Several of his sculptures travel from place to place as part of a traveling exhibit, hence their presence at the Gardens.  I had seen the pictures of the sculptures on the artist’s website before, but I was very excited to have a chance to see them in person!

The first sculpture you see when you walk into the Gardens is Praying Mantis.  He looms over the small entrance garden.  Note that I was taking the photo standing at my full height of 5 feet, 4 inches and shooting up!  This is a BIG bug:


Mega mantid!

I loved Daddy Longlegs:

daddy longlegs

Humongous harvestman

You could see the top of this one from the road and I was very excited about the exhibit from the moment I drove in the first night and saw it.  Fun!  Two of my favorite insects were featured, the dragonfly:


Astronomical anisopteran

… and the damselfly:


Supersized spreadwing

They were all great and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to see them, but I didn’t come across my favorite sculptures until I made my way all the way to the back of the Gardens.  I didn’t have a map with me and didn’t know where all the sculptures were, so I wandered around aimlessly hoping I would see all of them.  After taking photos of some really nice cacti, I walked past the plants and saw this:

ants from afar

Astounding ants!

Considering Them! is one of my all time favorite movies, I instantly fell in love with the ants.  I couldn’t help but note the similarities between the sculptures and the movie.  Giant ants.  Desert.  The giant bugs crawling over a hill.  I LOVED the ant sculptures!  They looked even more amazing close up:

ants up close

Amazing ants

I think what I really liked about the ants was the positioning of the bugs so that they looked like they were walking on a giant anthill.  The sculptures themselves were wonderful, but their arrangement was what really sold them for me.

The last sculpture I saw on my way out was this fabulous spider in its web:


Super spider

Awesome!  Who doesn’t love giant insects?  (Well, probably a lot of people, but most of you reading this probably side with me.)

Between the great interactions with the garden staff and volunteers, the fun experience of talking to people in Phoenix about aquatic insects, and the chance to see the giant bug sculptures in one of my favorite places in Phoenix, the trip was a huge success!  I came away from the experience very happy and enthusiastic about being a part of my next big outreach event, the Arizona Insect Festival in Tucson on September 24.

Big Bugs runs at the Desert Botanical Gardens through January 1, 2012.  I highly encourage you to visit if you happen to be in the Phoenix area!  They’ve got a ton of great events planned in conjunction with the exhibit, including move nights, a masquerade, and several lectures.  Please visit the Big Bugs website for more information and the schedule of events!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©

Insect Investigations: Aquatic Insects as Indicators of Water Quality

aquatic insects

My mini aquatic insect tank for carrying to classrooms

I promised to post some lesson plans during the semester, but I never had a chance to actually do it.  Today I’m making good on that promise.  As it’s also related to my recent water quality series, I’ll use this post to finish up the series at the same time!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at a top middle school in Tucson, a school that consistently ranks in the top 10 or 20 schools in the nation.  The kids at this school are very smart.  I taught 3 lessons, but the kids were in groups of 5th through 7th graders, all mixed together.  Odd!  These kids were also older than any other kids I’ve worked with over the past semester, so my usual “What is an Insect” presentation just wasn’t going to cut it.  Instead, I planned a presentation on aquatic insects.

One part of my presentation involved the kids doing an activity I developed that focused on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality.  For the blog here, I’m going to describe how I ran the lesson in the classroom during the hour I had allotted.  However, if anyone wants to use this activity, you can find a more official, printable lesson plan on my Educational Materials page (it will be posted later today – having problems getting it uploaded).  Feel free to use and share it at will!


The roaches I share with the kids travel in this

I start all of my insect lessons by figuring out how much the kids already know about the characteristics of insects – number of legs, body segments, antennae, and wings and where their skeleton is located.  With the more advanced kids at this school, I also asked about spiders, crustaceans, and other arthropods as well.  Once we covered the basics, I got a hissing cockroach out and let them hold and interact with it.  The group of kids were mature enough to be able to pass the roach around without totally freaking out and dropping one of my little guys on the floor – one benefit of working with older, gifted kids!  We discussed what the roaches eat (they’re decomposers of plants) and how they eat (chewing mouthparts).  Then I got a giant water bug out.  I don’t let kids hold them so they won’t get bitten, but I showed them all the piercing-sucking mouthpart up close.  We compared the mouthparts of the water bug to those of the roach and I had them guess some of the amazing things that giant water bugs are capable of eating.

At that point, they’d seen an aquatic insect up close and several water bugs and water scorpions in the clear container at the front of the room, so they were aware that there are insects that live in water.  I spent a couple of minutes talking about aquatic insects and where they live before introducing the idea of using insects as indicators of water quality.  I briefly told them how aquatic entomologists use tolerance values of insects to determine the water quality of a stream or lake, explained the tolerance value scale, and let them ask questions.  Then we did the activity.


The insect "samples" from their "streams"

I had the kids get into four groups and set the tone by telling them that each group was a survey team sampling a different stream in southern Arizona.  They’d collected, sorted, and identified the insects in their samples, but they still needed to calculate the biotic index value to determine how polluted the water was in their stream.  I gave each sampling team an envelope containing 10 cards, the “insects” in their samples.  Each card had a picture, the genus, a common name, and the Arizona tolerance value (see below).  Their job was to calculate the biotic index value by taking the average of the tolerance values for all the insects in their sample.  I also asked them to count the number of species found in their sample and discuss what the number they calculated said about the water quality in their stream.  Then I let them loose!

I let the kids do the math and discuss the results with their groups for about 8 minutes and then got everyone back together.  I had one person from each group share the biotic index value for their stream and what they thought that meant.  After every group shared their results, I told them which specific streams their “insects” were from (I based my cards on actual samples, so they were accurate!) and a few facts about that stream that might impact the water quality.  We discussed their results in light of this new information.  For example, everyone decided that it was natural that the most polluted stream would be the one that only had water in it because a waste water treatment plant dumped its effluent into the streambed.  It was also natural that the stream that had the fewest human visitors was the least polluted.  They also discovered that the number of species was generally higher in less polluted streams than in highly polluted streams and that some insects with very high pollution tolerance values still lived in the cleanest water.  Essentially, they came up with all the ideas I had intended to point out, entirely on their own!

insect cards

The "insects" in the "sample"

The kids were enthralled by the insects that have tolerance values of 11 out of 10, so I ended my presentation by pulling out a water scorpion.  They were an example of and 11, and I let everyone get a close look at it.  I told them a few facts about the insects and we finished the lesson by briefly discussing why that particular insect might be more tolerant to pollution than other insects.  They came up with some great ideas!

All in all, I was happy with the presentation!  I think there was a good mix of live insects and fake insects.  I did some talking, but the kids spent most of the time making observations and doing the activity.  Even though the students at this school might not be the best from which to judge the success of my new activity, the kids seemed to get really into it the activity and asked questions that made it clear that they’d understood the greater implications.  I couldn’t have been happier!  Although my presentation was rather informal, I have some ideas for how to expand the activity to make it a full-blown science lesson that fits into the national science standards for 5-8 graders.  If you’re interested in teaching the activity, check out the lesson plan I’ve posted for more information!

This concludes my series on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality… for now!  I have a few more topics I’d like to cover, but I think I’ll move on to other subjects for a while and revisit this topic again in the future.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: Invertebrates I’ve Been Using While Teaching

The spring semester is officially over for me!  It was a really great semester too.  I worked on finishing my Ph.D. by writing part of my dissertation and did one of the best teaching assistantships I’ve ever had.  Insect Discovery was fabulous!  Absolutely loved it.  For this week’s Friday 5, I thought I’d celebrate (and mourn just a little) a great semester by sharing 5 of the invertebrates I’ve been working with.  Some of these are used only in the Insect Discovery classroom and I cart others to schools all over town.  I’ve gotten really attached to these guys, so I’m going to miss them!

self portrait with Jeffrey

Me and my best roach pal, Jeffrey

The Roaches

I already wrote about my favorite Madagascar hissing roaches.  I spent a lot of time watching them over the semester and learned some interesting things about how they behave, at least in captivity.  One of my favorite things happened with my own pet roaches just a few days ago.  I was in the middle of a presentation at a school when I heard several kids go, “Whoa!” and suddenly the whole class was up off the floor and running over to my roach cage.  My super gigantic dominant male (Mr. Darcy) was upset the small subordinate male (Mr. Knightly) was up on top of the log near the big male’s girls, Elizabeth and Emma.  They’d gotten into a massive fight.  I’ve never had hissers move and hiss so much!  It was impressive.  I think the fight overloaded the kids’ brains because they could think and talk of nothing else for the last 10 minutes.  It was pretty darned cool though…


An emperor scorpion


We had three emperor scorpions we used for a station on adaptations.  My favorite scorpion was the one I featured in the video earlier this week.  He was quite active compared to the other two and a lot of fun to show off to the kids.  Just in case you were wondering, these animals have several adaptations.  They’ve got the big claws to help them grasp food (they crush crickets quite easily) and dig their burrows, they’re dark so they’re hard to see when they’re out at night, they live underground where it’s cool and relatively safe, and they have that big stinger.  I’ve never seen an emperor scorpion actually use its stinger, but maybe crickets aren’t worth bothering with.  Even though emperor scorpions are the largest scorpions in the world, their sting isn’t supposed to be that bad.  I’d prefer not to test that though.


The millipedes. So hard to get a shot of these little buggers...


I don’t know what species of millipede these are, but they sure were popular with the kids!  I used them in two different ways.  First, they were part of the decomposer station, so they were in a big plastic box full of soil that the kids would dig through to find the decomposers.  There were three millipedes per box and the kids wouldn’t rest until they found them all!  I also used the millipedes when I went to classrooms, the animal I brought as an example of an animal that wasn’t an insect.  Boy did they love it!  I’d say about 95% of all the nearly 2000 kids I worked with held the millipede, even if they didn’t hold the roach.  I found that surprising, but it always made me smile.

painted lady butterfly

Painted lady butterfly

Painted Ladies

Who doesn’t love butterflies?  Okay, I don’t particularly love butterflies, but I liked these guys.  We used painted ladies, a native butterfly that I think is very pretty.  These butterflies were a little crazy though.  I don’t know if it was the long trip across the country as pupae that made them nuts or what but most of them either flew/flitted around in a total panic or barely moved at all.  The kids didn’t care.  They’d sit inside the butterfly cage and watch them fly around as part of one of their stations.  We’d give every kid a butterfly to hold on his or her hand for a few minutes while they were inside.  Most kids are told that butterflies will die if they’re held (not true), so it was a really special experience for them.  We’d find butterflies in some strange places every now and again too.  One mom found one flying around the bathroom down the hall and the prof with the office around the corner had one fly into his office one day.  I’m sure we didn’t hear about them all!

bess beetle

Bess beetle

Bess Beetles

Ah, the bess beetles.  I used these the whole semester and I fell in love with them.  They are gorgeous shiny black (they’re also called patent leather beetles), but I like them because they are pissy little beetles that make this great squeaky noise to let you know.  The kids really liked them.  We were told that the beetles don’t bite, so I cavalierly handed them around to hundreds of kids all semester.  Then I was in this really, really awful classroom of 4th and 5th graders that were being mean to one of my beetles.  Rather than venting his anger on his tormentors before I took him away, the beetle waited until I was just about to put him back in his cage to sink his jaws into my finger.  It was surprisingly painful!  It didn’t draw blood, but I had two little dents in my skin for part of the day.  Didn’t stop me from getting the beetles out at the next classroom visit though.  I am a little more careful about letting the kids hold them now, but nothing’s changed otherwise.

Yep, I’m going to miss the bugs.  But here’s to a great, and hopefully final, semester!  Now, if only I was done with my dissertation…


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

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