PERSPECTIVES Summer 2000: Inside Story
Perspectives On Line

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Photo by Herman Lankford

Rediscovering Discovery


Photo by Herman Lankford

his is not an entomology course,” says Entomology Department Professor John Meyer of his course, Entomology 525: Entomology for Educators. “It’s actually a biology and ecology course for teachers where insects are used as paradigms.”

In other words, bugs are a means, not an end in this course. And a very perfect means, according to Meyer, who says, “Arthropods make great examples of practically every biological and ecological principle.”

Entomology 525, taught during spring semester from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday evenings, is targeted to middle school and high school teachers and to science education students who are planning to teach. “I also would like to attract more elementary school teachers,” says Meyer, who advertises the course in a radius of a two-hour drive from Raleigh. So far, teachers taking his course have come from Fayetteville, Sanford, Chapel Hill and Wilmington, as well as Wake County.

There have been some remarkable results: After taking Entomology for Educators, Rita Hagevik, a Raleigh middle school teacher, was able to come up with a unique science project suggestion for student Marife Ortega. Hagevik, taking a cue from Dr. Jim Smith, an RTP entomologist who volunteers with Meyer’s class, guided Marife’s experiment in assaying the blood of stink bugs for compounds that suppress the growth of bacteria. Marife not only won first place in that school science fair, but, with versions of the project as she progressed into high school, she also won in regional and state fairs.

In sharing the news with Meyer, Hagevik wrote, “I just thought you might like to know a success of your course and all your hard work!” Hagevik said that Meyer’s “crazy insect-blood-as-a-microbial-agent project” was the source of the idea that enabled Marife to achieve her goal. Hagevik then thanked Meyer and Smith, adding, “This is truly what education is all about.”

Gina Calabria, a Cary Academy sixth-grade math and science teacher who took the course this spring, says, “The best part of the course was having valuable lessons to take home. Each week Dr. Meyer would have his students participate in various labs and activities. After we finished, he would give us copies of all the plans necessary to conduct the same labs and activities in our own classrooms.” Calabria put those lessons to use for not only her class, but all the sixth-grade students at the school.

“This course helped me formulate a seminar for 98 students called ‘Incredible Invertebrates’ that I ran for two days in May,” she recalls. “At the conclusion of my seminar, I told the students to remember that every day of their lives they will see an insect of some kind, and the more they know about it, the better off they will be.”

Entomology for Educators began experimentally in 1998. “Basically, I started teaching the course because I felt there was a need to teach basic scientific research skills,” Meyer explains. “Also, I do a fair amount of outreach with schools where insects are part of the curriculum, so I have a feeling for what level of information teachers need — not how to teach, but what. I don’t want them to teach entomology. I want them to teach biology and ecology.”

So Meyer started pulling together what he calls “really good projects — things that really work.”

Things like the Berlese funnel extraction technique for separating soil organisms from the matrix they live in. This requires such simple equipment as a plastic bottle over a jar containing alcohol, with a metal grid in the middle, acting as a sieve so students can sort out what lives in the soil. “It shows students diversity, and you can go on from that to see if the insects they find are herbivores, predators, parasites,” Meyer explains. “They can classify by niche, by ecological function — then go on to data analysis.”

And that analysis, to Meyer, is the heart of the experience.

Projects such as the Berlese technique or the squash bug project, a study of hemimetabulous (3-stage) development in insects, are intended not so much to teach lessons about insects but to encourage students to form a hypothesis, test it and evaluate the results.

Explains Meyer, “One of my big ‘pushes’ is the difference between doing science and learning about science. A lot of teachers teach science as a body of facts on which they test students. That’s not all science is about. Science is a process of discovery and learning about the real world. When we do science, we do it by formatting hypotheses and testing them.

“So I try to show teachers examples of how to get their students to create testable hypotheses. It’s an application and discovery process.”

Says Calabria, “This course definitely reinforced the biological and ecological principles that I had learned in the past and that I teach my students today. However, with bugs, it makes those principles more ‘kid friendly.’ Every lab or activity was designed to teach these principles at different levels.”

Another of Meyer’s teacher/students, Carole Stephens of Sanford, took one experiment and turned it into an extended learning experience for her middle school class. “She took the squash bug project to her kids at school. When the squash bugs produced eggs, she farmed them out for adoption. The kids had to agree to a level of care,” Meyer says.

Such experiences are part of Meyer’s objectives for his students to discover insect paradigms for biology/ecology concepts, develop lesson plans for hands-on experiments and acquire techniques for keeping/rearing insects in the classroom.

Additionally, he requires his teachers to collect and mount specimens for a teaching collection, an activity that is useful for his final objective: that teachers learn to recognize major groups of insects and related arthropods — and learn not to fear them. Meyer says, “I want to help teachers identify insects that kids might bring to class, and help them overcome squeamishness.”

Toward that end he brings his pet tarantula to class. Terry the tarantula is 6 years old (could live to be 30), molts once a year and is eminently petable. Up-close-and-personal encounters with the huge, hairy spider help to assuage prejudices, says Meyer. “Once people experience this, it helps them to get a familiarity, to overcome their loathing, which is learned behavior. Unfortunately, our culture teaches children that many characteristics of nature are dirty or bad, sending messages to kids that nature is not nice. This is a means to reverse a culture that teaches that bugs are to be reviled,” Meyer says. “I try to counter this influence by educating biology teachers that they need to teach children that this is something that’s valuable.”

Photo by Herman Lankford

And he goes a few steps further: He teaches lessons on the impacts of insects in history, such as social interactions between people that were dictated by insect-borne disease, or economic impacts, such as the silk trade. And insects in literature are featured with a study of poet Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise (Poems for Two Voices).

“I truly enjoyed the literary aspects of the course. Anytime I can relate any scientific topic to a social or historical setting, I find that I can captivate those who may have had trouble understanding that science can be integrated into so many realms of everyday life,” Calabria says.

“I believe as an educator, when you see students excited about what they are doing in the classroom and watch them apply those skills outside of the classroom, you know that what you are teaching is working — and bugs really work.”

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