Friday 5: 5 Flats

I have incredibly bad luck when it comes to tires.  Doesn’t matter if it’s my own car or a rental – if there’s anything even remotely sharp on the road, I’m going to get a flat.  I finally got through one entire field trip without a flat last spring and I was so happy I almost cried.  Seriously, I am cursed.

Today I’m doing something extra random for Friday 5 by highlighting some of the many flat tires that I’ve gotten on field trips for the entomology classes I’ve taught or on insect collecting trips with my sister.  (See, there IS a connection between insects and this topic!)  These are the 5 most memorable:

Flats #1 and #2: White Mountains, Arizona, April 2005

I taught the lab for aquatic entomology in 2005.  We had the worst vehicle ever on that trip, a van with endless problems.  Honestly, the flats were the least of our problems!  Flat #1 occurred when we ran over a nail, so we spent part of a day in a nearby small town getting it fixed before moving on.  Nothing like spending a few hours at the mechanic’s when you’re supposed to be collecting in amazing mountain streams!  The following day, we has to deal with some nasty driving weather:

bad driving weather

Bad driving weather, Arizona style!

Then one of the tires just sort of… gave out.  The tire split apart all the way around!  This was on a tiny, curvy road in middle of nowhere, so we had to drive about a mile on the rim to find a place to change the tire.  When we finally reached a pullout and started to change the tire, the jack broke.  Two of the students had brought their own cars, so we used one of their jacks.  The second jack broke too.  The third jack worked:

The bad flat

The bad flat

…and after an hour or so of futzing with the tires, we were on our way back home.  Worst car troubles ever on that trip!

Flat #3: Tamiami Trail, Florida, March 2006

My sister the park ranger has lived in awesome places over the past decade.  She lives in the National Parks where she works, so I unfortunately can’t collect around her house.  When I visited her in the Everglades, we decided to go to Big Cypress one day and do some bug collecting outside of the parks.  We started down the Tamiami Trail and were about 15 miles from nowhere when we got a flat.  My sister and I have gotten so many flats together we’re skilled tire changers, so we hauled out the jack and lug wrench.  We quickly learned that the jack was 4 inches too short, fully extended!   Apart from dismantling the guard rail (which we did consider), there wasn’t anything we could prop the jack up on to make it work.

waiting for the tow truck

Waiting for the tow truck. My sister looks REALLY excited...

So, we sat on the side of the road for over 2 hours, waiting for a tow truck to come from Miami with a jack.  When the driver finally did come, he took one look at the canal alongside the road:

the canal

The canal along the Tamiami Trail

…and freaked, absolutely terrified that an alligator was going to get him.  An hour later when the tire was FINALLY changed – the tow guy whined about the canal most of that time and even made us stand between him and the canal when he got under the truck! – we decided not to tempt fate by continuing on our trip and turned around and went home instead.  I didn’t bring back a single insect specimen from Florida!  Did get a lot of photos of Florida bugs though, and that’s nearly as good – and doesn’t get nearly as many strange/horrified looks on the plane back.  :)

Flat #4: San Pedro River near Mammoth, Arizona, April 2007

This flat was on another class field trip.  We were headed up to the White Mountains to collect aquatic insects and stopped off at the San Pedro river on the way.  We traveled down this impeccably maintained dirt road, then pulled off near the river.  As we ate our lunch, one student noticed the tire hissing.  By the time we’d eaten, the tire was completely flat.


San Pedro flat

We soon discovered the cause: I ran over an arrowhead shaped rock!  (Don’t think it was actually an arrowhead, but I kept it just in case…)  It was lodged in the tire, the one thing that could have possibly caused a flat on that road.  Figures…  We did get some interesting bugs out of the stop though!  And the San Pedro through that area is absolutely gorgeous:

San Pedro River

San Pedro River

Flat #5: I-19 southBound, 2009

Last time I taught the aquatic entomology lab, we almost made it through the whole 3 day collecting tour of southern Arizona without a flat.  On the way to the last collecting site of the trip (and 30 miles from home) we got our traditional flat.


Most recent field trip flat

Much to the amusement of the females of the group, the guys got out and started working on the tire, but everyone had a different opinion about how to do it.   Ever watch a bunch of guys trying to make a campfire as a group?  It was like that!  The tire was eventually changed and then we turned around and headed home.  Hopefully this will be my last field trip flat ever!

On the other hand, it almost wouldn’t be a proper field trip without a flat!  These are only a handful of the many, many flats I’ve experienced while collecting bugs or going on field trips.  Anyone know of any good talismans against flat tires?  Saints?  Anything?  I could really use some help.  :)


Don’t forget to enter my contest!  If you haven’t done so already, you can enter here.  Tomorrow’s the last day to enter.


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

Why we should save the GK-12s

Sonoran Desert

Sonoran Desert

If you’ve watched the news at all recently (at least before the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan that have completely taken over the news media), you’ve heard about the budget cuts to science and education that have been proposed by the current Congress.  I’m not going to get into the politics at all, so you will not be reading a tirade about my opinions of the current Congress and the huge, sweeping changes it has proposed for the national budget.  Suffice it so say that funding to the major scientific funding agencies is being slashed and many cuts have been made to educational programs as well.  Today I wish to focus on one specific piece of funding that is on the chopping block, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that puts science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduate and undergraduate students into K-12 classrooms in their communities, the NSF STEM GK-12 programs.

baby saguaro

Baby saguaro

NSF began their GK-12 program in 1999 to bridge the huge gap between scientists and K-12 students learning science.  If you know many scientists personally, one of the things that becomes abundantly apparent is their general inability to share what they know with non-scientists.  Not all scientists suffer from this crippling ailment (if you read science blogs by scientists you know that some of us actually WANT to communicate the things we know to the public), but many scientists have a hard time talking about their research in a way that makes sense to people other than scientists within their own field.  The GK-12 program helps break down some of this barrier by placing STEM graduate and undergraduate students, students who are doing scientific research and are on the forefront of discoveries being made in their fields, into K-12 classrooms.  Students chosen to become GK-12 fellows are given generous stipends, funded by NSF, to spend a year (sometimes two) in a K-12 classroom or public school science program.  During that year, they assist teachers with their science teaching, develop new curriculum based on their own research and expertise, and learn to communicate science to K-12 students effectively.


Spider on its web

As federal funding has been slashed by Congress, the big federal science funding agencies have necessarily reevaluated their programs and are making cuts to adjust to their smaller budgets.  NSF announced that they intend to cut their GK-12 programs.  According to an article in the March 4, 2011 issue of Science (click on the link at the bottom of the linked page to view the article), NSF spokespeople claim that the services provided by the GK-12 programs are redundant, that they are being (or will be) provided by other graduate training programs.  They also claim that in spite of the clearly defined successes of the GK-12 program, the students who participate in the program are not receiving the necessary training to become researchers that  justifies the continuation of funding for the program.


Pyrrhuloxia sitting on an ocatillo

I care about this issue because I was a GK-12 fellow myself a few years back.  It was one of the best experiences of my life.  I was paid well, get to list an NSF-funded fellowship on my CV (always good!), and I am a vastly better communicator and teacher because of what I learned during my time as a GK-12 fellow.  Rather than being placed in a specific classroom or group of classrooms within a single school, I was assigned to an outdoor education center maintained by the Tucson Unified School District, a center I fondly remember going to on field trips as a child myself.  I spent my year as a GK-12 fellow teaching K-8 students about the ecology of the Sonoran Desert by leading students on educational nature hikes in nearly pristine desert land two mornings a week.  The kids had a group lesson as a class after lunch and then broke up into 4-5 groups and rotated through lessons led by parent volunteers for the rest of the afternoon.  Many teachers requested the Sonoran arthropod group lesson, and I gave the presentation nearly every day that I was there.  I was also the first entomologist who was officially affiliated with the center, so I was encouraged to develop new insect related activities.  I started an insect collection for the center, developed two new lessons, and helped with other curriculum development projects as needed.


Cholla cactus.

I learned so much as a GK-12 fellow.  I learned how to tell kindergarteners why polo verde trees have green bark in such as way that they actually absorbed it.  I learned how to get 50-60 rowdy, impatient, and sometimes scared children to pay attention to a live vinegaroon as I brought him through the class.  I learned how to be patient.  I learned how to pull cactus spines out of childrens’ hands when there were mishaps and how to identify the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert that I did not know as we walked along the trails.  I learned how to allay the fears of parents who worried about their children coming into contact with insects or rodents or spiders or venomous snakes at the center so that they would know that their children were safe.  I learned how to communicate with K-8 teachers and learned about some the many trials they face in their profession.  I learned how ill-informed and science illiterate many elementary school teachers are.  I learned to work with a group of dedicated naturalists as they desperately attempted to keep their center going in the face of budget cuts, protecting buildings that sat on a very valuable piece of property worth a small fortune, buildings that are expensive to maintain.  And I learned how very, very much I enjoyed teaching people of all ages about insects.

Jojoba plant

Jojoba leaves up close

The people in charge of the NSF budget may claim that the services and experiences that the GK-12 program provides are provided by other programs, but this simply isn’t true.  In no other program that I am aware of, nor cited in the Science article, do graduate and undergraduate students have such a profound influence on science teaching in their communities as they do as GK-12 fellows.  A report contracted by NSF itself to evaluate the successes of the GK-12 program found that everyone involved benefited from the services it provides.  Teachers in K-12 classes are rarely trained as scientists and are trained as educators instead.  Many elementary school teachers admit to feeling intimidated by teaching science.  These teachers welcome the input of graduate students in their teaching and enjoy the chance to increase their knowledge of recent findings and broad principles in science by working with a trained scientist.  The K-12 students themselves benefit from being taught by a science expert through innovative new lessons and activities that get them excited about science, but also from having real, young scientists in their classrooms as role models.  The fellows benefit by learning how to communicate science to non-scientists, improving their teaching skills (which translated into better teaching at the college level), and by gaining experience that gives them a boost over their colleagues when applying for jobs after they complete their degrees.



As for the claim that GK-12 fellows don’t improve their own research skills, well… that really isn’t the point, is it?  There are certainly other NSF graduate training grants that focus on creating world-class researchers, such as the Graduate Research Fellowships and Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT).  I personally don’t see why there shouldn’t be a separate graduate training grant that focuses exclusively on communication and teaching.  After all, communication is probably THE most important skill for scientists.  If you can’t communicate effectively, you can’t get grants, you can’t publish papers, and you will likely be passed over for teaching positions.  Professors I’ve known who have reviewed grants for NSF, the National Institute of Health (NIH), and other major science funding agencies all tell me that a superbly written grant proposal for questionable or risky research has a good chance at being awarded funding over a poorly written proposal for an outstanding research project.  Scientists need to be trained to become communicators and I for one think that the GK-12 program is an exceptionally effective training program for this skill set.  The fact that it happens to benefit so very many people in a time when K-12 schools are struggling to keep up with the rest of the world in science education should be enough to keep the program going, but this is sadly not the case.

nest in saguaro

Nest in saguaro

Many former GK-12 fellows have been outraged at the news that their beloved program was being cut.  If you haven’t been a GK-12 fellow yourself, it might not seem like it’s a huge loss, but let me say this: we GK-12 students have improved the quality of science education in your child’s schools.  We bring new information and cutting edge science to the K-12 classroom that would never be taught without us.  If you think that science education is important in our country, I ask that you at least consider lending your support to those of us trying to reinstate the funding for the program.  If you’d like to help, please considering sending an e mail to your Congressman or Congresswoman stating that you would like to see the GK-12 program reinstated for the 2012 budget.  You can also send an e mail to the NSF Director Dr. Subra Suresh at, Assistant Director Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, and GK12 Program Director Dr. Sonia Ortega  Last, former GK-12 fellows are sending out news and suggestions for how people can help via e mail.  If you’d like to be added to the mailing list, send an e mail to

More Sonoran Desert

More Sonoran Desert

As a former GK-12 fellow, I know I’m a little biased.  However, I really do think that this is a valuable program and one that should be continued.  Thanks for letting me stand up on my soap box and sing the praises of the GK-12’s.  We’ll return to your regularly scheduled broadcast for the next Wordless Wednesday!


All photos on this page were taken at the outdoor education center where I worked during my time as a GK-12 fellow.  It was an amazing place and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to spend so much time there!


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

The Economics of Insect Collections


As part of the insect systematics class I TAed this semester, the students were required to put an insect collection together.  It was a lot of fun helping them collect their insects by leading collecting trips and watching them curate their collections throughout the semester!  I also got to help grade the collections for the class, the first time I’ve graded non-aquatic collections.  I loved it!

The requirements for the collections were quite reasonable – not exactly easy, but certainly not hard if you put some effort into collecting early in the semester when the insects were still abundantly available.  However, regardless of how much you collect, it’s common to discover last minute that you’re missing an order or you never collected that family you could have sworn you’d collected.  Thus, the students eventually started to trade insects with one another.  As the deadline for the collections grew nearer, I noticed that more and more trades were taking place.  So, I organized an official trading session.  Students could bring their extra specimens (properly labeled) to the classroom an hour before lab and trade them with their classmates for things they needed.


Much to my surprise, nearly every student showed up an hour before class to trade insects!  Most of them had gone through their collections and knew what they had and what they still needed.  Most had a box of their “extras” that they traveled around the room with, hawking their wares in an attempt to procure something better.  They all traded away quite happily and most people ended the trading session with all of the things they needed to complete their collections.  I considered the event a success!

What really fascinated me about the trading session, as an outside observer who wasn’t participating in the actual trading, was the little economy that evolved.   The insects being traded had no value beyond the boost to a trader’s grade they represented, but a whole value system spontaneously developed nonetheless.  Different insects definitely had different values.  Furthermore, the value of these insects changed over the hour of the trading session and according to supply and demand.  Allow me to share what I observed.  From most valuable to least valuable, the initial value system worked like this:

1. Insects that are not found in Arizona.  These insects, regardless of how many were available, were worth the most.  For example, we do not have scorpionflies in Arizona, but one of the students had his brother collect about 30 of them in another state and send them to him in the mail.  The student with the scorpionflies could trade for nearly anything he might want because the only way the other students could get them was through him.  They were thus very valuable.

Alaus zunianus

2. Spectacular looking, rare insects.  People loved the showy insects and they were worth a lot – but only if there weren’t a whole lot of them in the room.  The students with the big showy beetles were able to trade for better things than the students who only had common things to trade.

3. Insects from orders that were hard to find in southern Arizona. Very few of the students were able to collect earwigs.  (I don’t care what anyone says – they’re just not that easy to find in AZ!)  Earwigs are also in their own order of insects.  Thus, the students all wanted earwigs.  Only one or two students had extra earwigs though.  Therefore, earwigs were worth a lot in trade.  Earwigs, stoneflies, fleas, lice, walking sticks – anything that was hard to find or hard to collect in our part of the state was worth a lot in trade.

damselfly adult

4. Insects that are normally common, but weren’t collected by many people in the class. This, I think, was based solely on scarcity.  If the supply had been high, no one would have cared about these.  The fact that only a few people had particular families made them worth more.  For example, hardly anyone seemed to have collected narrow winged damselflies.  They’re very easy to collect and there’s no reason people shouldn’t have them in their collections, but they were largely overlooked.   Thus, their value increased – but only this year and with this group of students.  The insects falling in this group would vary from year to year for sure.

crane fly top view

5. Common insects. Common insects weren’t worth as much as a lot of other things.  However, you could sometimes trade several common insects for a better insect if the recipient didn’t have the families they represented in their collections already.

6.  Things from laboratory cultures.  If someone on campus raised it in the lab or mass collected it in an agricultural field, the insect was virtually worthless, even if it was something that no one in the class would have in their collection if a student hadn’t brought them in.

This initial value system changed throughout the trading session.  At the beginning of the session, people tended to make the biggest, best trades.  That’s when one student traded a scorpionfly to a student for a rare, showy fly and another student traded her extra earwig for a webspinner that she just didn’t seem to be able to collect during the semester.  Later in the class, people started to trade the less valuable things.  Maybe an insect was common, but you didn’t have it in your collection yet either.  It was thus worth trading one of your lesser insects for at that point – or maybe 2 of your insects for three of that other student’s insects.  And then at the end of the session, it became a sort of free-for-all.  People started giving away the worthless things.  A student might have been the only person who brought whiteflies into the class, but he had tons, more than enough for everyone to have one.  No one was willing to trade for those because he had so many.  He eventually gave them away to everyone who wanted them without expecting anything in return.

I LOVE insect behavior.  It’s my very favorite science and something I intend to do for the rest of my life.  That said, I find people almost as fascinating as insects.  The fact that entire mini-economies rise and fall in something as simple as an insect trading session just blows my mind!  I had actually planned to trade a few things myself, but I got so wrapped up in watching the trades (and filming the hellgrammite I posted about a few weeks ago) that I forgot all about it!  Fascinating.  Simply fascinating.

Up next is another Friday 5.  It’s going to be a fun post, so look out for it Friday morning!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Friday 5: My Favorite Insect Books for Kids and Pre-Teens

I liked making my list of books last week, so I’m going to continue the theme this week by focusing on children’s books.  I love children’s books!  I don’t have kids and all of my friends with kids live far away from me, but I still love to wander through children’s book aisles and see what they have to offer.  Children’s books have a way of condensing important concepts down into easily digestible chunks that I find admirable and I think everyone should read them.

Kids often LOVE insects, so there are tons and tons of great insect books out there for kids and pre-teens.  Here are five of my favorites from my own collection!

Children’s Classic: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric CarleWho doesn’t love The Very Hungry Caterpillar?  I was hooked on this book when I was a kid, and now I give it to my friends as a baby gift so they can share the love with the next generation.  I think it’s brilliant!  The illustrations are outstanding, the text is perfect for young kids, and there’s an educational message to boot.  Eric Carle is beloved by millions of children for a reason: his books are darned good!  If there’s one children’s insect book everyone should have in their collection, it’s this one.  (Carle wrote several other entomologically themed books as well, so I encourage you to check them out!)

Insect Poetry: Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman

Joyful Noise by Paul FleischmanThis book is a ton of fun if you’re a kid!  It was released when I was in 5th grade, so I was just the right age to fully appreciate it when it was first given to me.  Joyful Noise is a collection of lovely Newbury Award winning insect poems accompanied by drawings.  What makes this book better than your average insect poetry book is that the poems are meant to be read aloud – and by two people.  In my experience, you really need to practice with your poetry partner to pull one of these poems off well, but trying is half the fun!  And, you don’t even realize you’re learning something in the process.

Great Insect Art for Children: Song of the Water Boatman by Joyce Sidman

Song of the Water BoatmanThis is my absolute favorite book for kids!  A friend of mine told me about it while we were in the field collecting insects for the National Park Service.  I knew I had to have it and I hunted it down the moment we returned to civilization.  I was instantly smitten!  Like Joyful Noise, this book is full of poems, this time focusing on aquatic animals.  But this book is ultimately my favorite children’s book because it is full of complex and expertly executed woodcut prints as illustrations.  Woodcuts and linocuts are among my very favorite art forms, so I think the illustrations make this book phenomenal.  And I’m not the only one – Song of the Water Boatman won a Caldecott Medal for its illustrations, securing its place in history as one of the most spectacularly illustrated books ever!  The poems teach kids about life in ponds and feature a lot of information about aquatic insects.  As you might imagine,  I rarely come across a book that combines my passion for aquatic insects with my love of woodcut art prints, but this book accomplishes it spectacularly.  Buy it, read it, love it.  Send it to your friends and family with nature loving kids.  I certainly do!

Insect Crafts for Kids: Crafts for Kids Who Are Wild About Insects by Kathy Ross

Crafts for Kids Who Are Wild About InsectsImagine that you are doing an outreach activity for kids that involves insects, or going to your child’s classroom to teach them something about science using insects.  You need a hook, something to get them really into the subject.  How about having them make the sucking mosquitoes from pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and eye droppers featured in this book?  I’ve been into crafts since I was about 4 years old and I’ve read hundreds of craft books for both children and adults over my lifetime.  As far as I’m concerned, this is THE best insect craft book for kids.  It’s great because it is full of wildly creative craft ideas that require only simple materials, are easy for almost any kid to do (that kid in the back who eats glue and can’t draw a straight line? He can make the things in this book!), and are surprisingly educational.  And kids love to make the things in this book!  I might not have my own kids, but I’ve done a ton of outreach activities with all ages of children.  The crafts in this book are a huge success every time I incorporate them into my sessions.  I highly recommend it!

For Older Children or Pre-teens: There’s a Hair in My Dirt! by Gary Larson

There's a Hair in My Dirt!Yes, THAT Gary Larson, creator of the entomologist-beloved The Far Side.  And because it’s Larson, save this book for older children or pre-teens.  This story isn’t about insects, but it does feature another invertebrate, the humble earthworm.  The narrative is quite cute and innocent on the surface, but it has darker undercurrents that are wickedly pro-environment and vividly illustrate the reasons why its necessary for humans to understand our world.  It also highlights the ecosystem concept, how things in an environment tie together with each organism playing a specific role, and illustrates how things can go terribly wrong if humans interfere.  The story is a little dark, but it makes some excellent points that everyone should acknowledge.  I use excerpts from this book to explain ecosystem concepts to nearly everyone – kids, teens, and adults.  It’s clever and entertaining, but it teaches you something very valuable about the world in the process.  And, it’s done in Larson’s signature style, so you know it’s going to be good!

There are so many other great insect books for kids out there that I might have to do another post on the subject.  For next week’s Friday 5, however,  I’ll get away from the literature and head back into the realm of insects.  I hope you’ll check back!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Studying Invertebrate Behavior on YouTube

image from class

An experimental setup in my recent insect behavior class. The students were studying how water temperature impacted respiratory rate in the giant water bug Abedus herberti.

As a lab instructor for an insect behavior class, I use a lot of live insects in my class.  The students enjoy working with them and are generally happy they don’t have to watch videos the entire semester.  Trust me – watching hours and hours and hours of insect behavior video can get really dull really fast.  Live insects are definitely the way to go for a class where most of the students do not have the level of patience that I do.

Unfortunately, the class is held in the spring, so there’s just not many insects out until the end of the semester.  This means that my students work mostly with my favorite insects, the aquatic insects, which is good.  However, it also means that they have a fairly limited variety of things to work with, i.e. things that overwinter as nymphs or adults.  I am able to collect a decent variety of aquatic insects during the winter in Arizona.  Still, there is one lab that would be SO much better if we had a bigger variety of insects to work with: the predator lab.

I developed the predator lab four years ago when my students at the time were constantly begging to put two hungry predators together and watch what happened in the ensuing death match.  (Did I mention that my students are college seniors and grad students and NOT 5 year olds?)  In the interest of turning this morbid curiosity into a teachable experience, the predator lab was born.  In it, I have the students feed several different predators and compare and contrast their feeding behaviors.  They have to watch how the insects capture and devour their prey and describe how they do it in detail.  They also have to tell me whether the insect is a sit and wait predator (they stay in one place and wait for food to swim, walk, or fly by), an active predator (they purposefully hunt down and attack their prey), or something else.  This way, the students get to watch several predators capture prey and eat it, fulfilling their need to promote death and destruction, but they are doing it in some meaningful context.

The predator lab is my favorite.  It requires a lot of work on my part to collect the insects and prepare the containers and prey items for the bugs, but the students get so into the activity that I can’t help but love it.  Even my quietest class, the class I just finished last month, got into it and actually made some noise in class for once!  And things get even better toward the end of the class period when they have finished their work for the day and I let them feed the things that don’t survive well in the lab to my water bugs or to each other.  This is the treat at the end of the semester, their reward for making it through what I consider a very work-intensive course: the death match they’ve been eagerly hoping to set up all semester.  This year there was also a water bug eating a fish to watch (click on the link to see the video!).  That really got the students excited.

Unfortunately, this year was a terrible year for aquatic insects in my part of Arizona.  We got a ton of rain during the winter and there was extensive flooding in the mountain streams that washed out the insects.  The populations didn’t rebound very quickly and there was hardly anything in the streams even several months after the floods.  I was hard pressed to get enough insects for my class this year and we ended up with a measly three types of insects for the predator lab this year: some small predaceous diving beetles, some dragonfly nymphs, and some of the smaller giant water bugs.  It doesn’t take very long to feed a hungry insect, so I brainstormed ideas for activities to fill up half of the class period.  I eventually settled on something I knew the students would love: showing some of the spectacular videos of predatory insects on YouTube.

YouTube is a rather amazing repository of insect behavior data.  A lot of the video is collected by amateurs and many of them know very little about the insects they’ve filmed.  That doesn’t matter – there is some great stuff on there if you know where to look!  For my class, I chose some of the most showy videos I could find.  My students had spent the semester watching live insects.  A video has to be amazing to hold my students’ interest at the end of the semester and the 8 videos I settled on fit the bill well.  And because they are too good not to share, I am posting them here so that everyone who reads my blog can see them too!

Army ants:

Damselfly eating another damselfly – check out the mouthparts moving!:

Preying mantis vs. mouse – and the mantid wins!:

Centipede vs. mouse – and the centipede wins!:

Spider captures and kills a bat:

Antlions (are awesome!):

Orchid mantid captures fly:

I can safely say that this was an excellent way to kill some time in class.  The students loved the videos (there were several collective cries of “Whoa!” during lab that day!) and actually learned something in the process.  A few of them even referenced the videos in their lab write-ups!  It was so successful that I think I will do this again the next time I have an opportunity to teach a behavior class, even if I do have a lot of animals to use in class.  It was great for the students to get to see some things we couldn’t possibly duplicate in class and let them see some more insects in action after their regular lab activities.  It was a great way to finish the last lab of the semester.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Notes from NABS Day 4

meeting logoIncorporating Service Learning Into an Introductory Limnology Course

Greetings from NABS Day 4!  Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, so I’ll only be making one more post in this series.  I’m also headed home, and a bit earlier than originally planned.  A combination of sleep deprivation and general physical and mental exhaustion due to extensive traveling over the last few weeks (I was gone almost a week right before the conference began) has convinced me that I should go home in the morning, skipping the talks on the last day of the conference.  I’m driving home, so it’s important that I travel during the period when I am most alert, which means missing the talks.  So, I will be presenting something from one of the first four days of the conference when I post my final entry for the conference on Saturday.  What can you do?

Things I learned:

— High school students have a lot of fun going out into the field to collect data (though this shouldn’t come as a surprise – my favorite biology lab in high school was one where we documented the ecosystem of a marsh in Colorado, the same marsh where I eventually did my undergraduate biology thesis!)
— Aquatic insect species that are found in many areas across the landscape are usually found at about the same altitude while insects that are found in a wide range of altitudes are typically only found in a small geographic area.
— This is really re-confirming something for me:  conferences are exhausting!

On to my favorite talk of the day!  I attended the Education in Aquatic Sciences session today because this subject is near and dear to my heart.  I LOVE teaching, so any time I can learn more about how to do it better, you know I’ll be there in the front row.  (Okay, okay – so, I was in the second row…)  My favorite talk of the session ended up being my favorite talk of the day, partly because it was an interesting talk and partly because the speaker, Dr. Frank Wilhelm, was completely inspiring.  Dr. Wilhelm is a professor in the University of Idaho’s Fish and Wildlife Resources Department and teaches a course in introductory limnology to undergraduate students.  His talk focused on a service-learning project that he has incorporated into his class and he described how it works.

Service learning is defined as a method of teaching, learning, and reflecting that combines classroom curriculum and meaningful service throughout the community.  In essence, service learning projects allow students to doing something hands-on that is also worthwhile to the community.  Dr. Wilhelm described service learning as a powerful, motivating, and effective approach to teaching and learning and believes it can be broadly applied in college courses focusing on field-based sciences.  He also believes that it engages students in a way that isn’t possible via other teaching methods and helps the students form a strong connection between what they learn in class and the real world.

Here’s how the service learning component of Dr. Wilhelm’s intro limnology course works.  First, he finds someone or a group of people in the community that have a problem they want solved or a question they want answered.  That person or group then becomes the partner for the class that semester.  Dr. Wilhelm gave an example of a partner from the last class he taught.  In his area, there is a small lake that is surrounded by ritzy homes.  However, the lake was absolutely full of vegetation, so full that it was completely useless for any other purposes such as fishing or boating.  The neighborhood asked Dr. Wilhelm to have his students tackle their problem and became the class service learning partner for the semester.

Students are told at the beginning of the term that they will be doing a service learning project as part of the course.  It is a required activity that ends up taking up the final 1/3 of the lab periods of the course.  During the first week, the students are put into groups that become their team for the semester and the entire class is introduced to the problem.  The second week, the partner presents the problem to the class so that the students know the person/people they are helping and the problem they are trying to solve.  They then identify subsections within the main problem that individual groups can tackle during the course.  Teams decide which subsection they want to focus on and define clear objectives, develop methods, make lists of equipment they require (made available by Dr. Wilhelm from his personal supply), and develop a budget that will help them accomplish their goal.  Dr. Wilhelm allows his students nearly complete freedom to decide which aspects of the problem they wish to tackle, how they wish to tackle it, and what sort of data they will need to collect.  His only requirement is that they have to work toward solving the overall goals of the project.

Then he sets them loose out in the field to do their projects!  By his account, this part is a little chaotic, but the students generally have fun and are learning valuable things while they work.  Dr. Wilhelm also said that students use their travel time to discuss issues related to the project, so there isn’t any downtime – they are constantly learning.

Back in the lab, the students analyze the data they collected in the field and make conclusions based on their results.  Then they present their part of the project to the rest of the class in teams.  The students combine their efforts to create a report that they will present to the partner.  And then they present their data to the partner in person, making suggestions for how the partner might solve their problem.

Dr. Wilhelm said that this sort of project is fairly easy to incorporate into a class that could conceivably have a field component.  (I can imagine how well it would fit into my insect behavior and aquatic entomology labs!)  He said that all you need to get started is to identify a partner for the semester, identify the areas of expertise for which you have sufficient knowledge to successfully guide students toward solving the partner’s problem, and spread the word about the program to get people interested.

Dr. Wilhelm believes the program has been a big success.  The partners have been happy with the information the students have provided them.  The students themselves tell Dr. Wilhelm that they really enjoy the project and think it’s the best part of the class.  Dr. Wilhelm thinks his students have become more engaged in the course since he introduced the service learning project as well.  Perhaps the best measure of success is that, in a difficult senior level undergraduate course worth 4 credits that starts at 8AM, he has nearly 100% attendance!  This just doesn’t happen.  He attributes this spectacular feat to the service learning project experience.

Although the talk was simple and not a scientific research talk, I really loved this one.  If nothing else, Dr. Wilhelm obviously cares about his students deeply and wants them to succeed.  He puts a lot of effort into his teaching and is clearly excited by the teaching component of his professorship (a somewhat rare trait at the big public universities!).  It was so inspiring to listen to him talk about his program and how involved the students become, how much they care about what they’re doing during their service learning project.  I’m hoping to incorporate some of the same things into my own courses sometime!

Tomorrow I’ll finish up Notes from NABS with a description of a talk I heard on Day 3 that focused on the effects that a small wildlife preserve has on a river in southern Michigan.  The vegetation that would naturally surround the river (called the riparian area) has been entirely replaced by agricultural fields – except for the area where it flows through the preserve.  Want to know if this preserve helps improve the quality of the water before it flows downstream?  Check back tomorrow!


Posts in this series:
Day 0 – Introduction to the Series
Day 1
– Invasive Crayfish
Day 2 – Giant Water Bug Dispersal
Day 3 – Dragonfly Captive Rearing
Day 4 – Integrating Service-Learning Programs into College Courses
Day 5 – Impact of a Small Preserve on Stream Health


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Teaching Insect Behavior Using Blogs

There’s been a bit of a delay in getting a post out this week thanks to my coming down with a cold.  Before I continue my series on insect respiration (which requires more energy to finish than I have available at the moment), I wanted to take a quick detour to describe a new project I am using in the class I teach this semester.  Next time, assuming I’m cold-free by then, I’ll jump right back into the respiration series with a post on aquatic insect respiration.

As an entomologist who blogs, I have learned that there are a lot of people in the world who want information about insects.   I have also learned that these people often look up very obscure things.  I try to remember this when I decide what I want to write about and sometimes blog on obscure topics even though I don’t think many people will read them.  I’m constantly surprised by the things that people will read!  When I write new posts, I try to remember that someone, somewhere will eventually want to know what I have to share, so I should always go ahead and post it.  And even if no one reads it right away, at the very least I’m making information available so that people can easily access it later.  I find my blog very fulfilling and I’ve come to believe that blogging is a powerful tool in disseminating scientific information to the world.

Abedus herberti mating

The giant water bug Abedus herberti mating. Photo taken in class last week.

This semester, I am once again teaching the insect behavior lab at the University of Arizona, but I’m trying something new.  Here’s how the insect behavior lab generally works when I teach it.  The students come to lab once a week for close to two hours.   For the first four labs, they do highly directed work that teaches them the basics of collecting behavioral data from insects and how to present their data in scientific paper format.  For the majority of the remaining labs, they are simply given a topic for the day (locomotion, predation, etc) and a goal.  The students then figure out what questions they want to ask to achieve that goal, form hypotheses, and develop a quick experiment to test their hypotheses using the live insects I make available to the class.  The students submit several assignments, including a lab notebook of their observations, lab write ups written in proper scientific paper format, and a longer scientific paper reporting on an individual project they do outside of class.

lab notebooks

Some of my own lab notebooks.

One of the major problems I have with the class is that the information we collect almost never makes it outside of the classroom.  This is an issue for me because some of the students come up with some very interesting information and do really excellent, publishable work.  However, the knowledge my class produces belongs to only a handful of people, often only the group that worked together in class and me.  Who cares if one of my students discovers something amazing?  No one outside the class is ever going to learn of it, so it does absolutely nothing to further science or make others aware of some of the fascinating things that insects do.

In an effort to remedy this deplorable state of affairs, my insect behavior students are being given the opportunity to submit some of their classwork in blog format for the first time.  Students who choose this option may submit their lab reports and their lab notebooks online via science blogs they create.  It is my hope that some of the interesting and/or valuable things that my students learn will finally be made available outside of class for people who are interested in the behaviors we study.  Aside from the benefits to science-loving people outside the class, I also believe that making their classwork available publicly will benefit my students.  Writing something that everyone can read makes you think about things more thoroughly, convinces you to look up that fact you are not completely sure is true, makes you more concerned about embarrassing yourself in public.  Or at least, this is what I choose to believe.  :)

I don’t know how many students will choose this option.  So far, it doesn’t seem popular for submitting lab reports, but I believe at least a few of them are submitting their lab notebooks as a blog.  The lab notebooks are probably more interesting for others to read anyway.  Really, though, I’ll be excited if even a few students take the blogging option.  If they do, I will post links to thier blogs here when I get them.  Some of my current students are likely to produce very high quality work that will be well worth a read.  It’s a really excellent group so far, probably the best I’ve had!


Text and images copyright © 2010

Abedus herberti mating

The giant water bug Abedus herberti mating

I find my blog very fulfilling and I’ve come to believe that blogging is a powerful tool in disseminating scientific information to the world.