Why Insects Make Great Ambassadors for Science Education

Butterfly Pavilion

At Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, one of the only standalone invertebrate zoos in the United States, guests can get up close with butterflies and other insects—and learn about important scientific concepts, too. Butterfly Pavilion’s entomologist and community programs manager will be on hand at Entomology 2017, November 5-8, in Denver for a presentation on science communication. (Photo courtesy of the Butterfly Pavilion)

Even though most insects are relatively small animals, they make a great focal point to discuss big concepts.

“We use invertebrates as a model system to carry out science communication,” says Mario Padilla, entomologist at Butterfly Pavilion near Denver, Colorado. “Because, when you talk about invertebrates, that’s an extremely diverse group of animals that we can make a connection to a variety of different things, whether it be environmental preservation, sustainability, or climate change.”

Butterfly Pavilion is one of the only standalone invertebrate zoos in the United States, featuring gardens, nature trails, and a variety of exhibits centered on insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates. (One is dubbed the “Crawl-a-See-Em”—say it out loud if you don’t get it at first.) Padilla and colleague Marissa Copan, community programs manager, will present a “Lunch and Learn” session at Entomology 2017 in Denver next month titled “How to Talk to a Nine-Year-Old about Climate Change (and Other Tough Concepts!) Using Informal Invertebrate Education.”

Copan says talking about complicated or contentious science topics starts, at least at Butterfly Pavilion, with getting up close and personal with the animals. Guests can meet and touch Rosie the tarantula and learn about adaptation, for example. “We use them as ambassadors to talk about larger issues,” Copan says.

About three-quarters of exhibits at the Butterfly Pavilion feature a tactile element, whether that’s holding a tarantula or digging in dirt for beetle larvae. “Utilizing all of your senses is extremely important to get the full breadth of the animals that we have here,” Padilla says.

That sensory experience gets visitors in learning mode and piques their curiosity about the science, and that’s when staff at Butterfly Pavilion can connect what visitors are seeing with broader subjects. “What I’ve found with teaching little kids as well as older kids is they don’t want us to dumb it down,” says Copan. “They appreciate the scientific names. They want to come to these programs that talk about these larger issues as well as the nitty-gritty details. So, we do address a lot of these concepts, because the information is out there, people have access to it, and our role is to disseminate that information in the most timely and factual way that we can.”

Padilla and Copan’s session title mentions talking to 9-year-olds, but Copan says it’s “also for 49-year-olds and 99-year-olds.” Talking to the kids, though, can often be easier than talking to the parents, she says.

“Kids are sometimes much braver than their parents and their grandparents, because they are still formulating their thoughts and their theories about animals and the world around them, so I don’t find it scary at all to bring up these concepts with younger guests,” Copan says.

Kids also ask the best questions; Padilla and Copan recalled being asked questions such as “Do bees have feelings?”, “What does it feel like to be a mantis shrimp?”, and “How many times does a cockroach poop?”

“The questions about how these animals perceive their world are super interesting,” Padilla says. “We can understand how they see or how they are able to smell with their antennae, with specific odor receptors, but how does that actually feel for that animal to perceive their world? We could get at it, but that’s a really interesting, high-level question that we find from kids all the time.”

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