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Virtual Outreach: How Students Bring an Insect Zoo to an Entire State

A woman sits at a desk in front of a computer screen on which is a video showing a woman speaking on the left and an overhead view of a tarantula spider on the right.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some communities could not feasibly attend in-person entomology outreach events due to expenses or distance to entomology programs. Students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Entomology at Kansas State University share their experiences and advice for working together to develop virtual outreach programs that can be a tool for entomologists to broaden entomology’s reach without the struggles the organizers or participants may face to meet in person. (Photo by Brian McCornack, Ph.D.)

By Tansy Hill, Kiffnie Holt, Rachel Johnson, Crystal Ly, Brian McCornack, Ph.D., Cameron Osborne, Victoria Pickens, and Mollie Toth

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.

How It Started

Tansy Hill, Kiffnie Holt, Rachel Johnson, Crystal Ly, Brian McCornack, Ph.D., Cameron Osborne, Victoria Pickens, and Mollie Toth

Top, left to right: Tansy Hill, Kiffnie Holt, Rachel Johnson, Crystal Ly. Bottom, left to right: Brian McCornack, Ph.D., Cameron Osborne, Victoria Pickens, Mollie Toth.

The Kansas State University Insect Zoo was born from a need to meet the demands of our community. In the 1990s, Sonny Ramaswamy, Ph.D., then head of the K-State Department of Entomology, and associate professor Ralph Charlton, Ph.D., had a vision for an old limestone barn storage room at the University Gardens. Over several years, and with the help of several donors, this space was transformed into a facility capable of showcasing arthropods for visitors of all ages. From 2006 to 2017, the zoo had an average of 8,000 visitors a year and a modest admission fee to sustain operations.

Since its founding, the Insect Zoo has received stellar praise from visitors and remains one of the top attractions in Manhattan, Kansas. However, by 2014, field trips from public and private schools were steadily declining, making up only 15 percent of total visitor numbers. Even before then, our setup was limited in reaching many members of the community. So, we began discussing new ways to bring the zoo into the community and classrooms.

Unfortunately, many solutions would have resulted in the Insect Zoo making costly sacrifices if attempting to meet this demand alone. Running the Insect Zoo is a full-time job, with the upkeep of roughly 100 different arthropod species and their exhibits, giving tours, and hosting visits (scheduled and walk-in) six days out of the week for 10 hours a day. Additionally, it relies on specially trained staff to meet strict U.S. Department of Agriculture containment standards. Luckily, our student organization, the Popenoe Entomology Club (PEC), typically has student volunteers willing to bring the unique resource that is the Insect Zoo into communities and schools. A plan came together and, by the fall of 2015, students from PEC were traveling to classrooms with props and live animal specimens provided by the Insect Zoo.

PEC has been an integral part of the K-State Entomology Department for over 100 years, with membership consisting of undergraduate and graduate students from entomology and other majors. While the club has taken many shapes over the years, some of its guiding principles have not. The club aims to enrich members’ time at K-State through professional development, outreach opportunities, and enhancing entomology education in schools and communities.

Organizing these outreach efforts is no small feat either. A successful event relies on carefully coordinating the transport of animals from the Insect Zoo, age-appropriate lesson plans, and volunteer recruitment. The club cultivates skilled students with a passion for outreach and encourages newcomers to participate in these events regardless of their experience. Club members often enjoy the opportunity to practice professional skills, educate the public about entomology, and embrace the responsibilities of performing outreach.

Over time, our department and Insect Zoo staff have cultivated a reliable and skilled team of club members who can fulfill outreach requests. And, in turn, PEC is entrusted with access to animals from the zoo for various club activities, which is a major selling point for member and attendee engagement.

A woman wearing a purple polo shirt and a light brown cowboy hat stands behind a table under a tent and leans forward to show something in her hands to three children and an adult standing in front of the table. On the table are a display case of pinned arthropod specimens, a papier-mâché spider, and some paper craft materials.

The Popenoe Entomology Club works closely with the K-State Insect Zoo to attend community outreach events on behalf of the Department of Entomology and educate the public about entomology. (Photo by Cameron Osborne)

When In-Person Was Not Enough

The Insect Zoo and PEC’s outreach grew incredibly popular, but we were still missing some of our community members limited by expenses and distance. Then, COVID-19 hit in March 2020, and the Insect Zoo and K-State campus shut down to all visitors. Student organizations were also limited in organizing in-person events. Thus, the brainstorming began.

How did we adapt to this new environment? We used day-to-day functioning in the online workplace to improve our skills in handling virtual environments and invested in technology to make virtual outreach professional and appealing. Now, in 2023, despite returning to in-person outreach practices, we offer our community virtual Insect Zoo visits and virtual classroom visits from PEC members, options especially appealing to those in remote parts of the state.

Why? COVID gave us the opportunity to optimize virtual environments for outreach in ways that overcome the limitations of performing only in-person outreach that we experienced before the pandemic. Through experimentation with different formats, we found that:

  1. Hybrid engagement provides a creative way to incorporate the in-person aspects of our facility with online educational opportunities that allow learners to engage with educational content in several ways.
  2. In-person events are limited by location, capacity, and timing. Online options can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, at almost any time.
  3. In-person events can be expensive to organize, especially when considering the cost of venue rental and travel expenses for more remote audiences. For example, it is not feasible for an elementary class to travel five hours one way to engage in a half-hour educational experience.
  4. We think differently about our zoo-goers’ short- and long-term needs. A hybrid environment allows learners to engage with experts from across our state without needing costly travel. Virtual content can also be recorded for reuse in various settings if needed and opens availability for organizing more events and activities.
  5. Setting up a virtual outreach program can be affordable if the tools are carefully chosen. Sometimes being cheaper can restrict content to a maximum quality level, but it’s ultimately up to you and your colleagues which tools will work best.

What Does Virtual Outreach Look Like?

At the Insect Zoo, virtual visitors get an up-close look at the hundreds of specimens on display. Teachers often help guide students’ questions while students view the projected video in the classroom. High-resolution cameras, clear audio from professional microphones, and brightly lit specimens ensure the best quality experience for the audience. (We discuss equipment recommendations below.)

PEC’s outreach experiences offer lessons on general entomology themes and, if desired, a specific lesson that integrates well with the instructor’s curriculum. Deep critical-thinking exercises and audience responses don’t always translate to the virtual format, so instead we send along worksheets for teachers to print. That way, students can follow along by filling in blanks, drawing, and so forth. A lead presenter walks through the lesson on camera, while offscreen we have animal wranglers, tech support, and even researchers who are ready to look up answers to those tricky questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed how we engage with online content. Consumers now expect content to be engaging, informative, and visually appealing. Growing and retaining an audience requires content creators to use professional-grade equipment and editing software, resulting in more polished end products. Any number of products with similar specifications will suffice. (See an example of a full setup and associated gear.) The gear we use for both virtual Insect Zoo tours and virtual classroom visits includes:

  1. Canon Mirrorless Camera (EOS M6 Mark II) with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 with Image Stabilization (one for the presenter and one for the specimens)
  2. Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to transition between cameras
  3. Wireless lavaliers (Rode Wireless GO II Dual Channel Wireless Microphone System) and boom microphones (Shure MV88+ Stereo USB Microphone)
  4. Key lights for the front camera and ring light for the specimen camera
  5. Large battery station (LIPOWER 300W Portable Power Station) for mobile setups

Where are We Headed?

Proximity to a university with an entomology program can sometimes provide K-12 students with opportunities to engage in entomology, but most are limited to pursuing entomology through 4-H or FFA. Unfortunately, a problem facing 4-H and FFA students is that their experience is highly dependent on their instructors, many of whom have little or no background in entomology. Through no fault of their own, instructors often confess that they struggle in teaching their students about entomology, usually because they have trouble engaging with the material themselves.

Recently, PEC hosted a workshop at the Kansas Association of Agricultural Educators Symposium to help teachers learn how to integrate entomology into their curriculum. Almost 100 agricultural educators were present, and teachers voiced a high demand for guidance on how best to teach young entomology students, especially through 4-H and FFA. While we shared a few options with them at this workshop, we became concerned with how PEC and our department could better inform other K-12 educators about bringing entomology into their classrooms. Considering the limited availability of the instructors, plus difficulty in organizing the resources we need for in-person events, we are now considering utilizing our new virtual outreach studio to create on-demand videos that can help guide K-12 educators and 4-H and FFA students at a low cost to the educators and our department.

Findings and Recommendations for Outreach

A key to the popularity of our outreach is the variety of arthropod specimens we use. Many of the specimens displayed and shared for outreach events are not native to our state but can travel into the community with proper containment. Others that are under USDA permit must remain confined to the Insect Zoo but can still be shared virtually. Many fun critters are relatively easy to maintain and make for an easy attraction to highlight the world of entomology. Programs looking to replicate our setup should do some research into what’s available, legal, safe, and easy to incorporate into an outreach program. The PEC charges a modest fee, when appropriate, for our outreach services. This helps offset the costs of supplies and supports the Insect Zoo’s operations. Others may find similar fees useful in returning value to investments in high-quality equipment.

Volunteer time can be managed more easily with a virtual setup primarily by taking travel out of the equation. Presenters can reach multiple classrooms at the same time, and teachers help moderate the sessions by controlling when students approach the microphone to ask questions. Consistency is important to both our audience (now often customers) and to our team who teach one another how to complete these virtual outreach events.

The PEC hopes to create a catalog full of lessons that have been used or could be useful for outreach events. Sections would include categories of in-person or online activities depending on the audience’s average age, interests, and size. Each activity would contain lesson plans consisting of an introduction, a list of supplies, technical instructions for equipment, the expected amount of time for the activity, the procedure, learning objectives for the audience, and some commonly asked questions. That way the volunteers, especially newer students, feel more comfortable carrying out the activity without prior experience. Additionally, when we arrange an outreach event, teachers or hosts can browse the lesson plans we have to offer and select what they feel would best suit their audience.

There’s no doubt that students are inundated with work, and participating in extracurricular activities like PEC outreach events takes additional time away from students. However, the soft skills gained from participating in these events will pay dividends in the future for our members, as well as play a key role in work-life balance for many of our members. Additionally, students gain leadership experience by helping organize and host outreach events and can incorporate their own unique perspectives.

Using a digital model for virtual outreach was a unique challenge that our members utilized to develop innovative ways of connecting with our audience from afar. This adaptability and creativity will serve our members well in the future, and we encourage students to seek out opportunities to participate in these outreach activities, as they can enrich students’ academic experiences.

A woman sits a black desk in front of a computer. She is turned away from the computer, smiling at the camera. A simultaneous image of the woman also appears on the computer screen via a camera mounted atop the screen. To the woman's left are three round, stacked clear arthropod containers, and to her right are a mounted ring light, studio light, and microphone.

Tansy Hill, outreach coordinator at the Popenoe Entomology Club at Kansas State University, prepares to host a live virtual session with three different elementary school classrooms full of kindergarten and 2nd-grade students. (Photo by Brian McCornack, Ph.D.)

We are proud to be facilitating a more virtual presence in entomology outreach that can hopefully help reach more audiences; however, there comes a lot of troubleshooting with being among the first departments to do so. By no means is our system perfect, but we hope that by sharing our history, experiences, perspectives, and plans for our outreach program others can gain insight into developing their own virtual entomology program. We intend to continually evolve with changing community needs and believe that virtual outreach is an efficient way of continuing to do so. Additionally, a necessary aspect of making content accessible is thinking about the needs of people with disabilities, which you can read more about at Accessible Social.

If you’re interested in learning more about our system or staying up to date on our virtual outreach efforts, check out our department social media pages or contact K-State Entomology Department Head Brian McCornack, Ph.D. at

All authors are affiliated with the Department of Entomology at Kansas State University. Tansy Hill is an undergraduate student and the outreach coordinator of the Popenoe Entomology Club. Email: Kiffnie Holt is the Coordinator of the K-State Insect Zoo. Email: Rachel Johnson is a Ph.D. student and secretary of the Popenoe Entomology Club. Email: Crystal Ly is the department’s communication and marketing specialist. Email: Brian McCornack, Ph.D., is the department head, professor, and faculty advisor to the Popenoe Entomology Club. Email: Cameron Osborne is a Ph.D. candidate and former president of the Popenoe Entomology Club. Email: Victoria Pickens is a Ph.D. candidate, former FFA coordinator of the Popenoe Entomology Club, and chair of the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: Mollie Toth is an M.S. student and former FFA coordinator of the Popenoe Entomology Club. Email:

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