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When the Path Less Traveled Leads to Hissing Cockroaches for a More Inclusive Tomorrow

Alex Bryant with middle school students

Alex Bryant (right) is an extension agent and 4-H educator in Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Her curriculum using Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa) has introduced more than 2,400 Kentucky middle school students to entomology and science.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

By Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

Alex Bryant is an entomologist by training, and is currently a 4-H educator at the University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension office in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, where she has developed an entomology education curriculum around Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa) colonies for middle school classrooms. Since she started the program, more than 2,400 students have gone through the curriculum, and it has since been adopted in 12 other counties in Kentucky. Below, I interviewed Alex about her experiences taking the path less traveled from entomology to youth development.

Alex Bryant

Alex Bryant

Morrison: What attracted you to your current job, and how did you make the leap from what you had been doing?

Bryant: I have been the extension agent for 4-H Youth Development Education in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, for the past five years. I received my Master’s in entomology from Michigan State University (MSU), studying habitat complexity’s impacts on insect communities in vegetable crops. I fell in love with entomology and STEM education through my extension experiences working with growers and my volunteer experiences at MSU’s Bug House, outreach opportunities for girls in STEM, and as a 4-H entomology program volunteer. After volunteering countless hours with youth programming, I knew 4-H Youth Development would be the perfect fit for me. I have been able to share my love for entomology with youth ages 9 to18 from school and afterschool programming, to camps, workshops, and much more.

Can you describe some projects where you’ve incorporated your knowledge of entomology?

As the extension agent for 4-H, I have provided entomology programs such as forensic entomology environmental camps, entomology workshops, and a monthly 4-H Bug Club. My proudest achievement has been the development of a new Kentucky 4-H curriculum, known affectionately as the “Mystery of the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.”

As some context, there is a growing need for knowledgeable scientists to identify problems, find solutions, and educate others. Additionally, women are under-represented in STEM-related fields, and this gap develops during middle school. In 2013, local middle school science teachers reached out to the extension office and Breckinridge County 4-H program to address these concerns. This collaboration developed a new curriculum focused around Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the classroom, which has continued for five years and reached over 2,400 youth in my county. The program includes sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students (with seven to eight unique labs around hissing cockroaches in each grade).

At the start of the program, I established a hissing cockroach colony in every middle school science classroom. Each month, the science teachers and I lead the youth in hands-on science labs that I developed with the cockroaches, reinforcing science content such as the scientific method, insect anatomy, adaptation, populations, genetics, fossil records, nutrient cycling, kinetic and potential energy, and the science of sound. Youth also develop their own questions about the hissing cockroaches, design an experiment, carry out the experiment, collect data, and write a report.

Comparisons between pre- and post-test results in 2016 indicated significant positive impacts of the program on local youth. For instance, seventh-grade participants’ knowledge and skills related to physics, nutrient cycling, properties of sound, and the scientific method and experimental design were significantly enhanced. After completing the program, 85 percent of students felt their math skills had improved, reflected in higher math scores and positive behavior changes observed by teachers. The confidence of students was also enhanced, with 81 percent more comfortable handling and interacting with insects, and 65 percent of both male and female participants confident in their ability to pursue a STEM-related career in future. The program has since expanded to 12 other Kentucky counties and is being reviewed for approval as official 4-H Kentucky State Curriculum.

What is the most enjoyable part of your work?

I enjoy teaching and interacting with our next generation of scientists. I love watching that spark when youth develop their knowledge, learn a new skill, or gain confidence. I hope the time I spend teaching youth and providing entomology and other youth development education will better prepare the next generation to be competent and caring citizens with life skills that will help them be successful in the future and make a positive impact in their community. Insects are the ideal model to teach STEM concepts—they impact our lives in countless ways. If I can teach science principles using insect models and help at least one child overcome their fear of insects or feel more comfortable interacting with insects, then I have succeeded.

Do you agree that #BugsR4girls, and why?

4-H’s motto is to make the best better! This is exemplified in entomological programming for girls and I have no doubt that bugs are for girls! Every young woman has the potential to be a great scientist and make a difference in their world—they just need a caring adult and experiences to help them achieve their goals. There is so much potential in the field of entomology to provide amazing mentors with experience and a passion for science to pass on to the next generation. I would not be the person I am today without my mentors in entomology and beyond. I have become a better leader, communicator, citizen, and a better person because of entomology. A girl who has determination, creativity, and a passion for entomology is unstoppable—that’s the person I want solving the problems we all face and making our communities better. If my female role models in entomology are any indication, bugs are for girls, and girls were made for entomology!

To read more about Alex’s Madagascar hissing cockroach program, check out the Summer 2015 issue of the University of Kentucky’s Ag Magazine [PDF], in which she made the cover (see image gallery above) and is featured on page 18. And, to find out more about Alex’s 4-H work, see the Breckinridge County 4-H Youth Development program page or like the Breckinridge County Extension Service on Facebook for updates.

Rob Morrison, Ph.D., is a Research Entomologist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, in the Stored Product Insects and Engineering Research Unit, in Manhattan, Kansas, and the 2017-2018 chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @morrisonlabUSDA. Email: william.morrison@ars.usda.gov Website: www.ars.usda.gov/pa/cgahr/spieru/morrison

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