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 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.

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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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14 thoughts on “Kids Like Bugs: entomology outreach in elementary schools (Part 1)

  1. At the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, we started outreach in school as well with grade 6 and 12. The respond of kids so far is excellent. They enjoy learning more about the world of insects with hands on.
    Look up our School Malaise program at: http://malaiseprogram.ca/
    You can also follow our school visit through Facebook and Twitter (links at the top of the page).

  2. Awesome post! Thanks for writing this. I’ve thought about this a lot because I regularly do programs for children about spiders. I have some additions:

    (1) Teaching children about arthropods teaches them to make careful observations and to take notice of things they might otherwise miss or ignore. It teaches children to look for detail and to look for meaning in detail. Aside from introducing children to the rich world of arthropods, this helps enrich children’s worlds in general.

    (2) The more we get to know arthropods, the more we are able to see their fascinating surprises. Because arthropods are almost everywhere, potential surprises are almost everywhere. Teaching children to appreciate arthropods potentially fills that child’s life (and future) with endless wonderful surprises. I like to say that I’m teaching people to smile at spiders. There are a lot of spiders out there, and they surprise us often, so there’s plenty of opportunity to smile and even to smile by surprise. Sure beats a life full of freaking out, anyway.

    (3) Generally, the better we understand something, the more we care about that something. Same with arthropods. The health of arthropods are tied to their ecosystems, so teaching children to care about arthropods teaches them to care about ecosystems, helping to create our future conservationists and preserve the natural world.

    (4) Because arthropods can be found almost anywhere, learning to observe and interact with arthropods empowers children to entertain themselves anywhere and even to be learning anywhere.

    (5) The programs I do for kids have the potential to become monotonous, but the kids themselves make every single program different. Some children are excitable in ways that invigorate me, some children say clever things that allow me to broach new ground, some children have fabulous stories to tell, some children surprise me with their knowledge and passion, some children ask a question I never myself thought to ask, some children deal with difficult lives and find the interaction with nature cathartic, some children do surprising things that get me laughing (inside or out), some children learn things that I didn’t know I was teaching and demonstrate understanding right there on the spot. Working with children is hugely enriching for the educator, seemingly without end.

    (6) Teaching about arthropods can be done in a way that empowers children overall by guiding them to answers rather than giving them all the answers. Nature is so rich and diverse that endless questions are possible. Whether the child asks a question or we do, we can get the children brainstorming about answers and help them select among possible answers, teaching them how we select among answers in the process. Children will find themselves having faced something brand new and come to understand it by asking questions and brainstorming answers. I like to think that this little thing done with arthropods (mostly spiders in my case) is greatest benefit of their experience, and perhaps the greatest of my experience with them.

    I guess I could probably go on, but I’ll stop there. Thank you Chris and Paul. We really do need to get the word out about teaching children.

  3. Joe – you are spot-on with your comments and have basically written another post, here. Thank you so much. When Paul and I first set out to write one post, it quickly became two (2nd one will be posted Friday) and even with those two, we’ve barely scratched the surface. I especially love your point about ‘careful observation’ – Entomology is especially perfect for that and really allow the right kind of observation in a school-type environment – very little of other biodiversity is just so perfectly suited (birds – too quick; mushrooms – too ephemeral; trees – not enough species [in my area!]; mammals – too rare). Related to this, entomology also allows for opportunities to record observations at a suitable pace.

    Your third point is also so appreciated -the more we know, the more we care. We see this time and time again, and you state it so effectively.

    Again, your comments are REALLY appreciated, and given your passion and careful commentary about this, I bet you are changing a lot of lives. Great stuff!

  4. Every time I’m home my sister, an elementary school teacher, begs me to come in and talk about bugs, I’ve had a blast every single time I’ve done it. The kids always come up with great questions, and more than once I’ve had to say ‘I don’t know’ in response to one of them. Of course I always go back, find the answer and send it on via my sister.

    One of the best things about talking to kids is that it forces me to talk about bugs in a way they can understand. We see a lot about writing in plain language but less about speaking in plain language. Talking to kids has taught me that I don’t need to rely on technical language to explain difficult concepts. I just need to think about what will make sense to the kids. I can apply this when i’m talking to non-entomologists and non-scientists too. So it’s valuable practice.

    I think it’s neat that kids also get to see scientists are real people. I like to tell them about the places I’ve been and the things I’ve been able to do because I study bugs. It helps dispel the myth that all science is done in a lab by people with lab coats.

    I’ll end with a story. My last time at home was the first since my sister moved to teach at an inner-city school. So, rather than the usual crop of middle-class kids, I was talking to a group of lower income and first-generation Canadians. I’m not sure any of them had ever met a scientist before, and I’m sure none had ever been to our local university. Some months after my trip my sister emailed me a list of questions from her students who had decided to a project on ‘bugs that kill crops’, and could I help them. That was pretty cool.

  5. Thanks for this comment – indeed we talk about plain language with writing a lot, but much less when thinking about skills need to speak to audiences that might include kids.

    Your story is amazing. I must admit that my own personal experiences with elementary schools have not included inner-city schools. Sounds like your experience there was important and special for you as well as the kids. Thanks for sharing – very cool, indeed.

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