That’s why Johnston elementary schools have teamed up with Iowa State University’s Insect Zoo for a round of educational programming in second grade classrooms this fall.
Ginny Morgal, the Insect Zoo education program coordinator, leads the programs, offering one to five programs a day for kindergarteners up to adults. She’s made it her goal to help each person in her classes become an “entomologist for a day.”
“Often times, children will come into this class afraid of bugs or spiders, or they’ve picked up on attitudes that all bugs are ‘pests,’ and that’s not true,” Morgal said. “We need entomologists and we need programs like Insect Zoo to spark the interest at a young age. I try to emphasize that we share the environment with all kinds of creatures and they need to take care of them, instead of harming them.”
An entomologist herself, Morgal approaches each class with guidelines for handling the creatures, built-in learning and discussion questions, and a no-flinch ability when handling scorpions and spiders.
“At this age, they are learning about life cycles, so I bring in questions about that,” Morgal said. “Because I want them to feel like an entomologist, I ask them to form hypothesis about certain creature characteristics – such as how a hissing cockroach breathes – and then we test it. They learn by seeing, by touching, by being wowed.”
Among Morgal’s creature collection are mealworms, beetles, Vietnamese walking sticks, two species of scorpions, brown millipedes, a giant African millipede, hissing cockroaches, and two species of tarantulas. Students are encouraged to study and touch all but the scorpions and goliath bird-eating spider.
Back at the Iowa State laboratories, Morgal said there are thousands of species being bred and studied. The Insect Zoo creatures are chosen because they are not harmful to humans and have characteristics that are teachable to a range of ages. As students get older, the Insect Zoo programs get more in depth. Periodically, the individual creatures out are rotated as to not stress them.
During the class, students are given magnifying glasses and encouraged to handle the species in their red observation bowls. As expected, some students are more willing to get up close and personal with the bugs.
The giant African millipede brought many oohs and ahhs from the second graders, while the walking sticks generated a few more shrieks of excitement. The hissing cockroaches did their tricks and the whip scorpion looked tough, but packs no stinger on the body.
And after jokes about how many shoes a millipede would need, Morgal brings out the Chilean rose spider – commonly referred to as a tarantula. With precise instructions of keeping quiet and a one-finger touch, students had the choice to touch the spider or look at it. Most – including teacher Jeanine Lynch – extended a finger to the furry, eight-legged creature.
“We have a lot of ‘wow’ creatures, and that is usually enough to capture their attention,” Morgal said. “But by asking questions and posing different ideas, they have to be the ones to do the discovering. It’s very rewarding to me when, at the end of the class, students tell me this was cool and they want to be an entomologist.”