Kids like bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 1)

Written by Chris Buddle and Paul Manning.

Spending time talking to kids about Entomology is ALWAYS worth it. If ever invited to speak at an elementary school about insects, always say “yes”, and in this post, we’ll expand on why it’s worth your time. In a second post on this topic, we’ll provide some tips on how to talk to kids about bugs.  Although these posts are focused primarily at elementary school events, the ideas and tips could be expanded to community nature walks, events at an ‘earth day’ celebration, hosting a bug day in your backyard, etc.

Part 1: Why talk to kids about bugs?

Most kids aren’t afraid of nature. In our experience, elementary school kids (especially the younger grades) still have a fascination with entomology and are still curious and excited by ‘bugs’. Later in life, it seems that many kids will follow one of several paths: (a) disinterest, (b) disgust, or (c) delight. As entomologists, in a field that is so important, getting kids to be delighted is very important.

Kids like bugs.

Kids already know a lot but they like an expert to verify their findings and support their interests. In our experience, kids can get especially excited about insects because they see them all the time – they have played with them in their yards, tasted them (perhaps), and probably spend time trying to burn them with a magnifying glass. Bugs are accessible, small, curious, and catchable, and thus kids learn about them – an entomologist can keep facilitating this learning.

Kids are truly amazed that you can ‘get a job‘ studying insects. This is unfathomable to them, since they don’t typically get much exposure to biologists. They are exposed to limited career options (“I want to play in the NHL“, “I want to be a doctor“, “I want to be a firefighter“) in part because our school systems often exclude the cool jobs like “stream ecologist”, “geologist”, or “entomologist”. The idea that you can spend time (as an adult!) collecting and curating insects (i.e., FUN STUFF) can be quite extraordinary. In our experiences, it’s so painfully obvious that working outdoors with insects is simply not noticed as a real job by many people; entomologists must work to correct this. Giving kids exposure to wonderful careers (like entomology) can help encourage future scientists that there are truly enjoyable careers that involve getting ones hands dirty, and spending time outside.

Entomologists have a responsibility to dispel myths about arthropods, and this should start at an early age. Invariably, we get statements from kids such as “My Dad told me to stay away from spiders ’cause they will bite you“, or “My aunt told me that earwigs go into your ear, so I hate them“, or “I am allergic to bees because my cousin is allergic“, etc. We can bring clarity to these kinds of statements, and by offering an ‘expert opinion’ on these topics, can help kids understand the real facts about entomology.

Kids are sponges: it is satisfying to speak to an audience who is fully engaged and willing to soak up as much as you can provide. Bugs are a very exciting topic for kids, and they will remain interested, excited and enthused if you continue to provide good content.

Kids ask great questions.  As an example, one of us (PM) recently talked about insects to an elementary school class. The class was asked to guess what was living within a gall, and to make guesses as to what they thought the gall was, and how it was formed. After one student quickly suggested that an insect was living within the gall, a flurry of wonderful questions began. Students asked questions like:

  • How did the insect get inside the gall?
  • How does the insect survive the winter?
  • What does the insect eat when inside the plant?
  • Why doesn’t the insect kill the plant?

All of these questions prompt interesting, and relevant discussions that fit well within learning objectives in science curriculum. Providing a concrete example that is applicable to students, might also result in a better understanding of the concept.

Finally, it’s nice to talk to kids about bugs because they genuinely appreciate it. Being thanked for spending time doing this kind of outreach is really, really nice. And, sometimes you might receive some nice thank-you cards or posters to put up on your wall.  To us, these are as important as a diploma on your wall, or a favourite butterfly poster. Thank-you notes from kids are some of the most wonderful things to read, and they often include delightful, creative, and colourful drawings.

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About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)
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