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An Entomologist’s Ode to Everyday Youth Outreach

Rob Morrison on youth bug hunt

At a family reunion in 2018 in Sunriver, Oregon, Rob Morrison, Ph.D. (left), shared his knowledge and affinity for insects with second cousin Lily (right) and her newfound neighbor friend. The experience “reminds me of part of the reason why I became an entomologist,” Morrison says. (Photo credit: Rob Morrison, Ph.D.)

By Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

Rob Morrison, Ph.D.

When is an entomologist not an entomologist?

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s a question I’ve thought about off and on lately. If you’re anything like me, I am sure you put in long, passionate hours, sometimes working not just through the normal days but also weekends, evenings, and sometimes even sneaking into the lab or taking a peek at your email during holidays.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit a lot of my extended family at a reunion. Some of them I hadn’t seen for more than a decade. For a week, we were situated in scenic Sunriver, Oregon, in the central part of the state, just a stone’s throw away from Mount Bachelor and the Three Sisters during summer. Of course, with extended family comes cousins, and second cousins. (Or is it “a cousin-once-removed”? That’s always confounded me.)

Three Sisters, central Oregon

The Three Sisters, a set of volcanic peaks near Sunriver, Oregon (viewed here from nearby Mount Bachelor), provided a scenic backdrop for a family reunion at which entomologist Rob Morrison, Ph.D., shared his knowledge and affinity for insects and the natural world with young members of his extended family. (Photo credit: Rob Morrison, Ph.D.)

One of my second cousins, Lily, who was perhaps only four years old, heard that I was a “bug person” and came running to me shortly after showing up, wanting me to see some cool insects she found. And, as kids that age do, Lily had already found a friend in one of the next-door-neighbor children, so they were both all about the insects. It’s always refreshing to see people (usually young kids) get so excited about insects, before they have had society tinge their perspective with fear and disgust. It reminds me of part of the reason why I became an entomologist, so many years ago now.

Lily led me out to see some ants dragging off a piece of prey to their colony. So, we talked about why they might be doing that and why they cooperate to do that. Of course, she started asking other questions, like, “Do they like sugar better? Fruit? Butter?” I said, “Let’s find out!” So, we designed an impromptu experiment and presented three kinds of food in the foraging trail of the ants. I told her that we should check back in on it periodically and see where most of the ants congregate. Granted, replication was a problem, but that is almost beside the point when first engaging people this young in the scientific method. Before we returned, I asked her which food source she thought would have the most ants and why—in other words, what was her hypothesis?

Over the course of the week, we went on regular “bug hunts” in the nearby forest, turning over all the rocks, logs, and leaves. Lily and her friend even wanted to collect some, so I taught them some methods to do so. We constructed pitfall traps out of plastic cups and installed them near the house, stuffed ziplock bags in our pockets, and went tromping out in nature. We saw a large diversity of insects. (Though I have to say that there is quite a dearth of insects in coniferous forests compared to deciduous ones that I was used to!) We found large carpenter ants and pollinators of various sorts, and at one point we ran away from a horse fly intent on attacking us. In one fell swoop, we experienced the range of insects, from beneficial species pivotal for human survival to ones intent on using us as a blood meal. One of the highlights was finding a huge carabid larva with it’s typical big chompers. (I think that’s the technical term in youth jargon for mandibles.)

carpenter ant

During the course of a family reunion, entomologist Rob Morrison, Ph.D., helped his 4-year-old second cousin Lily set up pitfall traps to catch insects, such as carpenter ants similar to the species shown here. (Photo credit: Rob Morrison, Ph.D.)

I firmly believe that everyone is “naturally” a scientist as a kid—the curiosity, the questions, wanting to understand how the world works. The only difference between scientists and other adults is that scientists didn’t let the world quash their willingness to ask questions and be curious about the world and instead turned this sense of wonder into a career. Seeing the rapture and thrill of knowing more about the world in children rejuvenates that feeling of excitement for anyone, even in an entomologist like me who sometimes becomes inured to the regular awe that the natural world ignites.

I also think that the pipeline into science can never start too early. I’ve made it a habit of trying to promote curiosity, questions, and interest in the natural world, as well as in science, for all the children in my life and in the lives of my friends. It is amazing what a well-timed gift of a pocket-foldout identification guide to bugs (that can be brought along on a walk) or an amazing picture book will do to promote interest in science. On that note, my current top favorites for children’s books related to science and the natural world include:

Or, alternatively, any book or guide with large, full, gorgeous pictures of arthropods.

I’ve regularly purchased these and others as presents for my friends’ kids. It also never hurts to throw some insect-themed shirts, stuffed animals, and gifts into the mix either.

This is a part of outreach that I don’t hear talked about a lot—namely, the outreach in our everyday lives to people who are intimately or tangentially familiar to us. Each of us have the capacity to spark a life-long engagement with science in the young people in our lives and to improve the scientific literacy of adults. It is so important that scientists be ambassadors for the knowledge they have about the natural world, and entomologists have a very easy time of it, because everyone knows what insects are, even if they don’t have the correct information about them. In recruiting women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in science, we need to start early and repeat often to communicate to the next generation that science is a valid career option, and they would be welcomed.

I asked at the beginning, when is an entomologist not an entomologist? I guess the answer is: entomologists are not entomologists wherever there are no arthropods around—which is to say, basically, never.

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. Web: www.ars.usda.gov/pa/cgahr/spieru/morrison. Twitter: @morrisonlabUSDA. Email: william.morrison@ars.usda.gov

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