Why Entomology Students Should Get Active in Education and Outreach
By Sara Salgado Astudillo
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Graduate students play an essential role in bridging the gap between the university and the local community through educational outreach programs. Emily Le Falchier is one such student, a dedicated and passionate entomology master’s student and lab manager in the Minteer Biological Control of Weeds Lab at the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center. Le Falchier has been making a significant impact by inspiring and guiding kids to explore the fascinating world of entomology.
By participating in science outreach activities for children, graduate students can not only exercise their communication skills and expand their own level of comprehension but also inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Meanwhile, exposing children to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers is critical for addressing the skills gap and promoting diversity and inclusion, enabling access to economic opportunities, solving global challenges, and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Effective outreach strategies implemented by organizations and institutions can help create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society by introducing underrepresented groups to STEM careers and fostering an interest in science among all children.
Among other outreach activities, Le Falchier has taken a leading role in St. Lucie County 4-H Insectathon. Over the years, Le Falchier has developed a workshop series about insect collection, curation, and identification, to get her club members prepared to participate in the annual 4-H Insectathon. In this Q&A, Le Falchier shares her experience and advice for fellow entomology graduate students on getting involved in community education and outreach.
Salgado: What is the 4-H insectathon?
Le Falchier: The 4-H Insectathon is a statewide event where 4-H youths (ages 5-18) can demonstrate their knowledge of insects. There are several categories that 4-Hers can participate in: the insect collection contest, the insect art contest, and the insect identification “Entomology ID and Skillathon” contest. These contests give 4-Hers the opportunity to show off their insect-related skills in many different ways!
Why do you think outreach is important?
Outreach is important in so many different aspects. One reason I throw myself into outreach is because, as a child, I had no idea that entomologists even existed. I was never exposed to all the different STEM-related career paths, so I thought the only way I could really help people was through being a doctor. I was in my early twenties when I finally saw how much opportunity there was to help people (and the environment!) in other non-medical fields.
I feel like I got a late start on my career path, so I’ve made it my mission to show children how many amazing opportunities there are for them in STEM. Maybe they’ll be able to find their dream jobs sooner than I did. This is one way I try to give back to the community.
How did you decide to bring 4-H to this program?
I was in 4-H for many years until I graduated out of the program, so I’m familiar with the structure and mission of 4-H. My advisor, Dr. Carey Minteer, runs a research program that has an extension component to it, so creating this program was a natural fit for our lab. Beyond that, the Insectathon was already an established event in the 4-H program, so all that was missing was someone to be that “link” between local 4-H clubs and this awesome event.
What is the most rewarding experience of working with kids?
The most rewarding experience has been seeing kids return year after year and watching their love and knowledge of insects grow. I also love seeing parents’ interest in insects grow to support their children. My favorite stories are always about how a parent or child spots a really cool bug and hearing how they had to figure out a way to catch it, even if it meant sacrificing their cup of coffee (so they can use the cup) to do it!
What is the best advice you have for someone looking to start outreach activities?
For students and early-career professionals, I always suggest talking to your advisor or mentor first. They will very likely know what steps you need to take or who you should talk to. Beyond that will depend on what you want to do: What problem are you addressing? What do you hope to accomplish, and who is your target audience? From there, you can figure out how much time you’re willing to invest and what resources are available to you, find people interested in collaborating, and develop your methods or strategy.
How do you balance or integrate education and outreach activities with your student workload?
I consider outreach to be an integral part of my student workload partly because of my advisor’s extension appointment. But beyond that, it doesn’t feel like extra work. It’s really energizing to talk to people about what I’m studying and what my lab does and to see them get genuinely interested or excited about our work.
What value does education and outreach experience have for an entomology student’s own professional development, CV, career prospects, etc.?
I think education and outreach are incredibly important for students because you will learn how to convey scientific information to different audiences. The way you talk about your research to your academic peers will be vastly different than how you’d talk about your work to children. When going to events, I always think about who my audience is and why they are there and tailor my message or highlight the areas of my work that would get them to care about what I do or see the importance of my work.
However, I think one of the most important skills that can be learned here is how to talk to people that don’t agree with or approve of your work. Working in classical biological control, we run into people all the time that assume we’re going to cause the next plague by introducing insects from other parts of the world. I’m happy to take the time to explain the process biological control agents go through to ensure they’re safe, and most of the time they’ll see that it is safe and support it. Other times, they’ll insist your insects are bad and you’ll have to accept that you can’t win everybody over.
Beyond looking good on your CV, this is a soft skill that can be taken with you no matter where you go after graduation, whether it’s academia or industry.
What are the keys to effectively working with kids in entomology outreach programs?
Before working with children (and having one of my own) I was uncomfortable with the idea of trying to teach them! I think the best way to start is to capture their attention. I like bringing my insect collection with me as show-and-tell because they can look at these bugs without fear of getting bitten, stung, or anything like that.
I ask what their favorite and least favorite insects are and normally follow that up with some fun or gross facts—like about how robber flies catch their prey midair, inject them with saliva, and drink the resulting liquid meal. The reactions are priceless, but it’s a great icebreaker and get the kids excited about how cool insects can be!
As Emily Le Falchier continues to inspire and educate through outreach programs, her passion for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM fields serves as a beacon of hope for a more inclusive and brighter future for aspiring scientists of all backgrounds.
Sara Salgado Astudillo is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida and current Southeastern Branch representative to the Entomological Society of America Student Affairs Committee. Email: email@example.com.
Sometimes such opportunities appear without even seeking them. I’ve been retired for a decade, but when I’ve gone out for a walk and others have spotted me looking at the insects on nearby gardens, I’ve gotten into interesting conversations, and have received invitations to present at local schools. One 1st grade teacher has brought me into her class a few times to talk about social insects and their nests. Over the years I’ve given such presentations to various age groups in a range of settings, from small children up to allergists interested in learning which insects cause sting allergy.