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Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Interdisciplinary Project Engages Design Students in Promoting IPM

Pest Patrol

A new paper in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management reports on an interdisciplinary collaboration between one university’s IPM and design programs to develop new ideas for promoting and educating stakeholders on the value of integrated pest management. Shown here is one concept developed, aimed at “providing experiential learning for children that allows them to engage with the principles of IPM in a fun, community-building way.” (Image originally published in Mueller et al 2020, Journal of Integrated Pest Management)

By David Coyle, Ph.D.

Integrated pest management—i.e., combining several pest management tactics into a cohesive pest management strategy—is used in many agriculture and natural resource systems that require pest management. However, despite the ecological and economic value of the approach, adoption of IPM principles and tactics is not as high as one would think.

David Coyle, Ph.D.

David Coyle, Ph.D.

Recently, a team of scientists from the Iowa State University (my alma mater!) IPM Program teamed up with the ISU College of Design on an interdisciplinary project with a goal of increasing IPM adoption and IPM communication and developing novel means of IPM promotion by thinking outside the box. A focus of the study was giving creative latitude to students, especially artists and designers, and having them be involved in the educational process itself. The results, published this month in the open-access Journal of Integrated Pest Management, were innovative ideas and unique undergraduate experiences, all with the aim to help increase IPM adoption in the future.

I spoke with two authors of the study, Daren Mueller, Ph.D. (Twitter: @dsmuelle; email:, and Laura Iles, Ph.D. (Twitter: @LauraJesseIles; email:, both of the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Iowa State University, and got their thoughts on this unique study and what it means for IPM.

Coyle: How did you come up with the idea to create this multidisciplinary course on IPM for students, and why did you think it would be successful?

Mueller: To be honest, the original idea came from desperation. We received internal funding to look at how we can look at extension in different ways using IPM as a model. After a few failed attempts at ways to get our extension system to work with faculty on campus in different ways, I had a conversation with Austin Stewart [of the ISU College of Design and a co-author on our study], and that conversation led to this project.

Iles: Adoption of IPM tactics by Iowans brings so many benefits—reduced pesticide use, reduced pest resistance, protection of beneficial insects such as pollinators and biological control agents, and so much more—but we sometimes feel like we are not communicating this message effectively to the widest range of people. That is why working with students in a completely unrelated field was so much fun. Design students approached the challenge of increasing IPM adoption with fresh ideas and perspectives.

Coyle: It seems surprising to me that none of the students—even those from farming families—had heard of IPM prior to the course. Did you expect this?

Mueller: This was surprising. And a little disconcerting. I mentally prepared for another failed project after learning this, but it actually gave the students a clean slate to think through the issues without bias. So, it ended up being a good thing.

Iles: I guess I was surprised at first, but I think integrated pest management is something that those of us who have specialized in pest management fields understand well, and we use the acronym frequently when writing and speaking about pest management, but I don’t think people outside these fields utter the letters “IPM” all that often, and it just may not be something these students picked up while growing up. I should go home and ask my 15-year-old if he knows what IPM stands for!

Coyle: I find it fascinating that the students—again, who had zero understanding of IPM when they started—identified the lack of a clear definition of IPM as a challenge. Those who work in IPM know this is an issue, and apparently even those new to it all can pick this out. Can we (the IPM community) ever agree on a single, unifying definition for IPM? Will that happen in our lifetime?

Mueller: I hope so. One thing I learned (or relearned) was that there are other disciplines out there that do their job really well. The IPM community should collectively realize this and use the skills from other disciplines (marketing, design, etc.) to help us solve some of these problems.

Iles: That is a tough question and one that I have really changed my mind on multiple times. Currently I feel that we do not need a single, unifying definition of IPM. When you talk with people who are growing plants either for their livelihood or enjoyment, they do practice IPM. They may not call it IPM, but they are selecting the right cultivars, they are providing the best growing conditions possible to keep the plants healthy, they are looking for pest problems and making management decisions based on their needs. That is why I really liked the students’ campaign proposals that IPM is holistic and not “one size fits all.” Design thinking is not something I can do, but there is something positive in their suggestion to approach IPM as more of a mindset and less of a set of specific activities.

Coyle: Three approaches were identified to help increase IPM awareness and use in Iowa: Moonshot (a call to action to create an IPM movement), Pest Patrol (providing experiential learning opportunities for children), and Future Farms (education for the next generation of farmers). All of these have merit and a lot of potential to positively impact the farming community. Which approach do you think has the best chance of succeeding?

Mueller: I think the approaches with the greatest potential of succeeding are the two that we can control: Pest Patrol and Future Farms. It would also be working with the folks that we are already working with (4-H, youth, extension specialist, etc.). Pest Patrol is already being partially adopted by a group at ISU 4-H, and we hope to get some traction there. Future Farms is the one that resonated the most with me—one of the students simply asked “Why do we celebrate century farms but not celebrate farmers making decisions so their farm will be around for another 100 years?” It was a simple question that has so many ramifications. And it would be a way to give IPM direction and an overarching goal.

Iles: Personally, I am fond of Pest Patrol because children are so open to learning and excited about the natural world and how it all works together. If we think of IPM as more of a change in mindset, I really think it is easiest to start that change in youth. I see this proposal from the design students as a fun way to change perspectives about pests (not all insects are bad) and pest management options. Children also teach the adults in their lives about what they learn.

Coyle: What are your thoughts on the success of this endeavor?

Mueller: This is probably the coolest project I have been involved with. We did not think through the entire process—i.e., we now have these cool ideas but no funding or real infrastructure to work on them. Will it succeed? Yes, it already did what it was set to do: identify our problems and give us some solutions. The solutions are coming at a time when there is not a lot of extra money floating around, which is why we wanted to publish this and see if the larger IPM world could use it!

Iles: I hope this project brings to those who read this paper inspiration to also reach out to different specialties and get outsider perspectives on IPM. As you have pointed out in your own work, IPM is an action done by people. We need the experts in people and behavior and communication to help those of us in the pest management world to communicate the critical importance of using IPM methods to minimize pest problems in a sustainable manner.

David Coyle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation at Clemson University. Twitter: @drdavecoyle. Email:

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