Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Adventures in Science Communication: the Middle School Crowd

Way back in February, I had the opportunity to give a presentation about insects to a local middle school. I have a friend who was student teaching there for the semester, so she knew they had a science club for the kids on Fridays. Well, the teachers were interested in getting someone passionate to talk to the students about science...

...guess who they called.

I had two weeks to prepare and wasn't quite yet besieged by schoolwork, so I started outlining what I wanted to talk about and reached out to others on Twitter for advice. I follow some pretty erudite people on Twitter, so their comments were of course integrated into my plans.

I wanted to bring stuff that they could hold, as well as stuff for them to take home. I ended up bringing both live specimens (a hissing cockroach and a few species of millipedes) and dead specimens (local butterflies, a drawer of assorted beetles and other insects from the college collection), as well as many pictures. I wanted to focus my presentation on insects they could go outside and find themselves so that they could literally go outside after my presentation and look for some of the insects I showed them. That was my overarching theme, and to make sure they didn't forget what everything looked like, I printed off pictures of local insects and labeled the backs with their names. I figured having the names was essential--that way they could do their own research if they found a picture of a bug they really liked.

Then the day of my presentation came! On February 24th I woke up early (no small feat for me, mind you) and was SUPER EXCITED. I stopped by the lab to pick up my insects and some insect drawers and headed to the school. (It's interesting going back to a middle school, the ceilings are so low, but you never notice when you're actually attending the school.) My friend and I headed into the school and she helped me get situated. We were carrying everything through the hallways and received many curious looks, so we kept yelling at everyone we saw to come to Science Club that day to learn more about what we were carrying.

I set up the room (cafeteria...) and put stuff on each table for the students to look at, and was all set up by the time students came filing in, so I looked professional and all that good stuff. During the presentation, I kept it open so that the students could ask questions throughout, and boy did they take advantage of that! Almost every slide I brought up I was getting a question, which was great--I was able to bring up more information, and they connected it back to their own experiences. Throughout it all, I kept coming back to the fact that insects are everywhere and easily accessible, and included lots of pictures of the interesting insects in the area: a Luna moth emerging from the ground, a recently-molted wheel bug, UV fluorescing millipedes, and more. Much of the stuff the kids had never seen before, but a few recognized some of the insects.

During my presentation, I had the millipedes circulating, and a good number of the students took advantage of that, holding them and checking them out under the UV light. Narceus americanus was a great hit--four inch long millipedes usually have that effect. Some of the kids who were grossed out by the millipedes at first eventually came around and were holding them by the end, overcome by curiosity (peer pressure?). Thankfully, no one screamed and threw the millipede on the ground. Thanks kids!

Interestingly enough, when I was talking about assassin bugs a girl raised her hand and asked what the face in the photograph was. I was confused, because there was only an assassin bug (Rocconota annulicornis) on the screen. As I looked closer, however, I saw that she was right, there was a face! I squinted and in the background saw my friend photobombing.

 Look closely and you can see Will's "gargoyle" face.

I was surprised, but recovered quickly as I realized this was a great teachable moment! At the beginning of my presentation, this girl had mentioned that she wasn't all that interested in science and didn't see herself becoming a scientist, so I took the opportunity to praise her for her excellent observation skills, mentioning that she would make a great entomologist/scientist. After I told her that, she looked sort of surprised, but then concentrated more during the rest of my talk. Let's hope she's seriously thinking about becoming a scientist now, eh?

I finished my presentation and fielded a few more questions, then the bell rang for classes to begin. My timing was pretty impeccable, I must say. I started to put my laptop and stuff away, and was happy to see that all the pictures I had put out on the tables for the students were gone. As the students were leaving, the next class was shuffling in for study hall, and flocked towards my stuff pretty quickly.

"I get to talk to more students about insects? Woohoo!" I thought to myself.

So, I started talking to about a dozen more students, as well as the study hall teacher. She was great, and didn't mind that I was sort of interrupting whatever the students were supposed to be doing instead. I stuck around for 15 more minutes, but had to leave since I was going to be late for class. One of the students even helped me take my stuff back to my car (and navigated me out of the school...I was lost), which was much appreciated.

I made it back to Marietta just in time for class....which was actually one of the few instances I was on time for that class. As I said before: waking up on time is not my strong suit.

So, what did I gain?

As far as any career-boosting advantages, nothing really.

More importantly, I was able to be an example to the students of someone who is excited about what he studies. I remember sitting through countless classes during middle school and high school where the teacher didn't love what they were teaching. To put it lightly, I didn't enjoy it. If I enjoyed learning about science, it was because of an awesome show on the Discovery Channel, or because of the great student teacher for my Biology class I had in high school. At that age, it's critical to be influenced by someone passionate about what they do. I constantly hear about the importance of STEM programs during middle and high school, and this was a chance for me to help out in my own way, so I took advantage of it. Thinking back on the people who influenced me while growing up, I figure this is the least I can do.

Plus, I had a FANTASTIC time doing this! Later that day, I spoke with my student teacher friend and she said the students loved it and were talking about it all day, as were the teachers. She told me that one student who kept speaking up and asking questions during my presentation was one of her more problematic students who isn't usually engaged with the material they cover in class. I'd say that's a pretty good reaction, and certainly worth my time.

While discussing my presentation on Twitter, zeusisdead brought up a good point:
We're all kids who have refused to grow up, us bug lovers.
In that case, don't we owe it to our peers to share our passion for bugs with them?

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