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Growing Entomology’s Reach: Meet ESA’s 2023 Science Communication Awardees

Photo of two ESA Science Communication Awards on a table near the stage at the 2022 ESA Annual Meeting. Each award features a small black pedestal with silver writing on the front, topped with a large glass disc standing vertically with its broad side facing forward. Within the glass is a swirl of blue, yellow, and green color.

A train-the-trainer approach paired with engaging resources on pollinators and a Spanish-language online extension publication have been honored this year by the Entomological Society of America for excellence in science communication.

In August, the Entomological Society of America announced the honorees of its 2023 professional and student awards, and among them were the recipients of the third annual ESA Science Communication Award.

The Science Communication Award “honor[s] impactful and innovative communication projects or programs that engage diverse public audiences with entomology-related scientific information.” Eligible formats range from articles and videos to education programs, social media, or exhibitions.

This year’s honorees are both rooted in the traditions of university extension programs but take that ethos in new directions through innovative communications formats that aim to reach expanded audiences. One empowers community members to spread knowledge on protecting pollinators, and one meets Spanish speakers in the agriculture and natural resources workforce where they are. Both emphasize the importance of accessibility in science communication.

All of ESA’s award honorees will be showcased during Entomology 2023, November 5-8, in National Harbor, Maryland. Entomology Today connected with the scientists behind the 2023 Science Communication Award’s first-place and runner-up projects to ask about their perspectives on making an impact in science communication. The Q&A’s below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

First Place

Pollinator Education Toolkit
Elaine Evans, Ph.D., University of Minnesota

On a white background, a large circle shows 16 images of bees and look-alike insects, each framed in a puzzle-piece shape and number 1 through 16. All of the bees and look-alikes are alive in natural settings, visiting flowers or plants. They vary in colors, with many in shades of black, yellow, and brown; some striped, an some iridescent green or blue. Atop the page is text reading "University of Minnesota Extenson | Bees or Wanna-Bees?" Around the circle are four speech bubbles, with text reading "How many of these pollinators have you see in your yard?" "Can you find all six wanna-bees?" "Find the bee that is carrying pollen on her belly," and "How can you support a wide diversity of pollinators in your garden?"

Among educational resources in the University of Minnesota’s Pollinator Education Toolkit is a poster that illuminates the differences between bees and insects that look similar or even mimic bees, such as some wasps and flies. (Screenshot of portion of poster courtesy of University of Minnesota Bee Lab)

Pollinator preservation is a topic that garners enthusiasm from the public, but it’s a much bigger and complicated movement than simply to “save the bees.” That’s where the University of Minnesota’s Pollinator Education Toolkit fills in, serving a critical need to distribute accessible, accurate, and engaging educational materials on pollinators in communities across the state (and sometimes beyond).

On their own, resources like the “Bees or Wanna-Bees” poster or the “Monarch Mishaps” game are visually attractive and informative creations, but the scientists at the UMN Bee Lab, led by extension educator and researcher Elaine Evans, Ph.D., have expanded their reach through a “train the trainer” approach. The toolkits are provided to educators such as park naturalists, Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, primary school educators, 4-H leaders, and environmental organizations to deploy to their respective audiences and communities.

A high school teacher and FFA advisor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, who recommended the Pollinator Education Toolkit for this award writes, “As an agriculture teacher working in the cities and teaching agriculture, I can personally testify to the value of the Pollinator Tool Kit, especially working with a diverse student population. The Pollinator Tool Kit allowed students to understand the importance of diversity in nature and the connection to urban agriculture and engage in pollinator research and food security opportunities. The variety of physical materials and online resources enabled students from all backgrounds and all levels to participate.”

Elaine Evans, Ph.D.

Elaine Evans, Ph.D.

Entomology Today: What inspired you and your colleagues to develop the UMN Pollinator Education Toolkit?

Evans: A 2017 poll showed that 87 percent of Minnesotans were concerned about pollinator decline. Our network of pollinator educators was receiving more than 500 requests for public education per year, far more than our collective capacity. We decided to enhance outreach capacity by creating the Pollinator Education Toolkit, enabling educators to reach new audiences with action steps to conserve pollinators.

How have you measured its success? And was there a moment or experience that made you realize you were making an impact?

We have kept in touch with our network of over 250 educators who received our physical toolkit as well as over 450 educators who have accessed our digital toolkit worldwide. Once a year, we check in with educators to find out how they have used the toolkit, what audiences they have reached, as well as any suggestions for improvement. This helped us see that the toolkits reach an estimated 100,000 Minnesotans per year and that the digital toolkits reach an estimated 180,000 people per year.

We also use these yearly check-ins to keep materials accurate and relevant by sharing updates with recipients. In 2022, the Pollinator Education Toolkits were integrated into a statewide 4-H pollinator program. It was truly inspiring to see the projects these youths created, from native plantings to pollinator-themed murals.

What are your guiding principles or philosophies for your science communication efforts overall?

My main goal as a science communicator is for everyone to understand the importance of the topic and for audiences to come away with clear action steps they can take to contribute to solutions. I am a strong believer in the principle that every action, no matter how small, can contribute to a greater good. Working with pollinators, we see that pollinators very quickly use new habitat, even if it is just a small flower patch in someone’s yard.

I also believe in the importance of keeping complexity in a message to maintain accuracy, rather than risk oversimplifying a message to the point where it is not accurate. The more people hear messages that do not follow a good-versus-bad dichotomous division, the more accepting they can be of “changing” messages from the scientific community when new information updates our current understanding.

What’s your advice for fellow scientists looking to build their public-engagement skills?

There are many opportunities to share your insect stories with new audiences. Don’t be shy about reaching out to local classrooms and gardening groups or offering a workshop at your local library. Even though many of us have large vocabularies, and big words are fun, try to speak in simple terms, but do not shy away from complex ideas.

Runner Up

Extensión en Español Blog
Anahí Espíndola, Ph.D., and Macarena Farcuh, Ph.D., University of Maryland

Screenshot of a post on the Extensión en Español blog. Atop the page, the title reads "Extensión en Español | Blogs de Extensión de la Universidad de Maryland." Below that are four bold links running in a row: "Posteos Recientes | Todos los Posteos | Eventos | Quiénes somos | Contacto." Below that is a full-width horizontal image of a tree-lined hillside. Below that on the left 60% of the page is an article with the headline "Mosca linterna con manchas: la especie invasora más reciente que se está extendiendo por el este de los Estados Unidos" followed by a closeup image of a spotted lanternfly on the palm of a hand. On the right side column is a search box, then a menu titled "Categorías" with bulleted links below reading "Frutas | Huerta | Naturaleza | Pesticidas | Plagas | Polinización." Further down are menus titled "Próximos Eventos" and "Posteos Recientes."

The Extensión en Español blog hosted by the University of Maryland offers Spanish-language information on topics such as agricultural production, pest control, gardening, horticulture and the environment. Shown here is a post about the invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula). (Screenshot courtesy of University of Maryland)

In the state of Maryland, at least 12 percent of the population is Hispanic. And, like elsewhere in the U.S., Spanish speakers make up a large portion of the workforce in agriculture and natural resources. Yet there is a comparative lack of high-quality educational and information resources written in Spanish to serve this population.

Anahí Espíndola, Ph.D., and Macarena Farcuh, Ph.D., professors in the Department of Entomology and Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture, respectively, at the University of Maryland, are tackling this problem one blog post at a time via the publication they founded, the Extensión en Español blog. Since launch in early 2021, the blog has published more than 100 posts related to agricultural production, pest control, gardening, horticulture and the environment, all in Spanish.

Importantly, Espíndola and Farcuh note, the posts are either written originally in Spanish or translated from English to Spanish by skilled translators. And every bit of info on the blog is in Spanish, as well, including all titles, menus, and other navigation features—because, they say, Spanish-language resources elsewhere are often buried on primarily English-language sites, making them still difficult to find for their intended audience.

Despite originating in Maryland, the Extensión en Español blog’s reach is much broader, with visitors from across the U.S. and Spanish-speaking countries around the world. Says an extension agent in Virginia who recommended the blog for this award, “I have used many of the resources it provides as tools in my own extension work, further distributing the materials produced and expanding the blog’s reach. … Importantly, the blog also allowed me to establish connections with other Spanish-speaking experts from the area. … From this respect, the blog is acting not just as a repository and source of accurate information on entomological topics related to agriculture, horticulture, nature, and land management, but also as a collaboration hub where Spanish-speaking professionals can connect and further their service to the very underserved Hispanic population of our region.”

Macarena Farcuh, Ph.D.

Macarena Farcuh, Ph.D.

Anahí Espíndola, Ph.D.

Anahí Espíndola, Ph.D.

Entomology Today: What inspired you and your colleagues to develop the Extensión en Español blog?

Espíndola and Farcuh: We are both from Latin America (Chile and Argentina). Additionally, both our positions include extension appointments. Arriving at Maryland, we both realized that there was an important need among the very large Spanish-speaking population of the state: There was very little high-quality, understandable, and easy-to-find extension and nature-related information in Spanish.

Through discussions with each other and extension members from the area, we fully understood how developing a respectful and culturally aware resource to serve the needs of a very large population that is often marginalized and underserved was a priority. Further, doing so allowed us to bring our whole selves to our work, serving the needs of our local (and now national and global) communities and society.

How have you measured its success? And was there a moment or experience that made you realize you were making an impact?

It is hard to measure success in a blog because most interactions are indirect. However, our use of blog analytics (e.g., number of views, clicks, etc.) allowed us to see how quickly the readership of our blog grew (currently at more than 9,000 monthly views), and how geographically widespread it became, from the U.S. mid-Atlantic to currently every Spanish-speaking country in the world. All of this is to us a representation of the ongoing success of our blog.

Along with this, we frequently receive feedback from readers through the blog, through a feedback form we integrated in it, or simply via emails. This feedback is consistently positive and encouraging, with readers requesting us to keep the blog running because they are learning a lot from it. This type of feedback, and in particular the tone of the comments, is really what shows us that the blog is accomplishing its goals beyond blog analytics; we are indeed impacting people’s lives in positive ways.

What are your guiding principles or philosophies for your science communication efforts overall?

One of our goals is to make knowledge understandable, accessible, and respectful to our readership.

First, we felt that there was some quite advanced information available on the internet, but there was little “introductory” information that would allow a person to approach the advanced information that could be found. To solve this, our blog does not try to reinvent the wheel and rewrite advanced information, but rather it presents concepts simply, linking to more advanced information that already exists elsewhere in the appropriate sections.

Second, we realized that a lot of the information in Spanish that already existed in our area (and the U.S.) was usually buried in websites presented fully in English. A person who does not understand English would thus be unable to reach the information because they would be hindered in their navigation to the material. Having a website fully in Spanish can facilitate this task: In our blog posts we could direct readers to the hard-to-reach information in Spanish of other websites, providing an easy way for readers to find it and increasing the reach of the information already produced by others.

Finally, we became aware that a lot of the materials we found produced in Spanish by local agencies had very poor grammar and semantics, suggesting that some automatic translator (or good-intentioned person with little Spanish knowledge) had produced it. As good-intentioned as this is, we find this to be disrespectful to Spanish-speaking communities. Even in the absence of fluent Spanish-speakers, professional translations are not usually restrictive in terms of cost, and this should not be a place where costs are cut if the goal is to serve a linguistically diverse community.

Our blog post are all written or edited by Spanish speakers and, if needed, translated by professional translators, which leads to them being of high linguistic quality and, for that reason, respectful of the language it is written in and the culture associated with its use.

What’s your advice for fellow scientists looking to build their public-engagement skills?

We feel that having the needs and interests of the audience in mind is a must. We do science communication to serve communities, but this cannot be accomplished if we cannot understand what the communities we are trying to serve need, what they relate to (and don’t), and what they care about. Learning to identify those aspects requires information gathering, interactions with the audience, and keeping an open mind to recognize different perspectives on the topics in question.

If this is done, we feel that it allows developing strategies that are audience-centered, which permits transmitting information in a manner people can connect and feel engaged with.

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