On Wednesday, Chris Buddle and Paul Manning posted the first of a two-part series on outreach activities in elementary schools. That post focused on the ‘why’ - this one (also written by Chris and Paul) is about the ‘how’.
How to talk to kids about bugs:
First thing about talking to elementary school kids is stay calm and don’t worry! If you have any University-level training in Entomology, you are qualified – Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be able to speak about all aspects of entomology: play to your strengths! If you are a taxonomists working on Syrphidae flies, bring in your flies and talk about them these magnificent animals. If your experience is broader and less specialized, browse some notes, look on-line, or peek at a textbook: do a short overview of the main Orders of insects and their characteristics. Although most kids get some entomology in elementary schools, it’s not usually very much (although ALL kids do seem to learn about monarch butterflies!).
One great way to speak to kids about bugs is to make the session thematic. In addition to bringing in a drawer or two of insects, link the specimens to biology. For example, one of us (Paul) has recently used ‘metamorphosis’ as a focal point for discussion. The transition from larvae to adult is a biological wonder, and acts as an excellent focal point for discussion. It brings together different facets of biology, from hormones, to physiological development, behavioural adaptations, through to discussion about life history strategies. Paul brought galls into the classroom, and demonstrated that there were larvae living inside. The students screamed with excitement when they saw the larvae living within the gall. One student described it as a ‘cute white blob‘. Several students asked if they could bring the larvae home (wouldn’t Mom and Dad just LOVE that!).
Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. In fact, kids find it refreshing to hear that an ‘expert’ doesn’t know all the answers. Turn it around to illustrate that the world of entomology is so vast that there are a lot of unknowns out there, and many questions still to be answered.
Have patience. With younger grades, asking kids questions, or having them answer questions, can quickly turn into ‘stories’ from young, enthusiastic students. For example:
Q: Does anyone know what kind of insect a ladybug is?
[Hand shoots into the air...]
A (from a 6 year old): Um, yes, I know a lot about those things. Once, when I was 4, I remember that I saw a beautiful bug flying by my garden – it was really big and black and I think it was a ladybug and my granddad told me about how ones like that eat trees and kill the trees and that makes me sad because we have a big tree in our front yard that I really like but sometimes my little bratty brother hides behind it and scares me when I am walking by. But I really like all bugs especially ladybug ones that are red but they smell funny sometimes and my mom said they can bite – will they bite me if I play with them? why do they smell funny? why are there so many spots on them? do their spots get bigger when they grow….
Give kids a chance to tell you these stories, but know that it will take patience…. but heck, if bugs get them talking and excited, that can’t be a bad thing!
(as an aside, most elementary school teachers will typically coach students so that they will ask/answer question instead of tell stories)
Bring a few props: If you can do an event outdoors, try to bring a few sweep nets and vials. We will often bring extra vials from the lab and give students the vials to keep (heck, plastic vials cost very little!). For MONTHS afterwards, parents will often tell us about how their child packed that vial full of insects and carried it around obsessively for weeks. That’s a great way to inspire entomology.
If you are doing an indoor talk, make sure to have a lot of photographs of interesting insects, and whenever possible, discuss/show or use examples from your local fauna – this will allow kids to connect to things they have seen on the playground or in their own yards – this connection between the content you are discussing and the insects they are seeing on their own, is very powerful. With a smaller group, you can certainly bring in a few drawers of insects – if you don’t have any, this becomes a great excuse to make a little synoptic collection of your own to use for educational purposes. Or, ask your local entomology museum, or local naturalist club, about borrowing some specimens.
Whenever possible, bring a few ‘real’ field guides. One of us (CB) ran a biodiversity challenge at an elementary school and managed to convince the school to buy a couple of sets of field guides. The kids LOVE the look and feel of real field guides and will thumb through them with delight. Part of our own passion about natural history can be traced back to field guides in our houses when we were young.
Don’t dumb down the material: Too often we think kids need to be talked down to, but nothing is further from the truth. As mentioned above, kids are sponges for information and in our experience they want to hear the details. You will want to avoid jargon, but other than that, provide the details whenever you can. Again, doing a ‘thematic’ talk with school kids becomes quite important because you just won’t have time to cover anything in-depth if you try to cover too much.
Finally, and most importantly, be passionate and enthusiastic. Kids will feel your positive energy and love of entomology; they will feed off of this, take it home with them; they will start asking more questions, start to dream, and fall further in love with the world around them. Spending a bit of time in a classroom is perhaps one of the most important kinds of outreach activities to do.