Mar 102013

Insects make great teaching tools for a wide variety of lessons in evolution & biology, but their small size can limit what you can do if you don’t have a microscope set up. Lately I’ve been playing around with a 2 megapixel USB Microscope from EmCal Scientific Inc that I picked up at the 2011 Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nevada. This little device cost ~$100, and provides magnification up to 200x life size! (Note: there are similar products available around the web for cheaper, but I can’t say how well they may or may not work.)

I’ve used it in a few lectures & labs to show specimens, structures and techniques, but honestly haven’t had much success, largely because the stand it came with is pretty well useless. Hand holding it isn’t an option either, as even the slightest movement at such high magnifications turns your demonstration into a bad example of the Harlem Shake.

Despite the problems I ran in to, I really wanted to use the camera in a couple of outreach events I’ll be participating in later this month, but I couldn’t afford to invest much in a solution. So, this afternoon I went to my local big box home improvement store and wandered around until I managed to design and piece together what I think will solve a lot of the issues I was having. Here’s a breakdown of what I used and how I put it all together for less than $30. Continue reading »

Mar 302012

You may have noticed that this blog has been rather quiet lately. Too quiet… My apologies for that, as there’s been a lot of cool science going on in my absence! I hope to get caught up on some of the delightful Diptera discoveries that have been published lately, not to mention all sorts of other fun stories, but for now they’ll have to wait for another day.

Why have I been neglecting the blog as of late? In January I was offered the opportunity to build and teach a Horticultural Integrative Pest Management and Plant Health course for Mohawk College in Hamilton, and I saw it as an excellent chance to expand my CV and gain valuable teaching experience (also make some money, ’cause that’s pretty important). I knew from the outset that I was in for a challenge; I was hired less than 2 weeks before the course began; my combined knowledge of IPM, botany and horticulture amounted to 1 university IPM course and some extremely black thumbs; and oh yeah, I’ve never constructed and taught a course before! Nevertheless, I took the rough curriculum the college provided and set out to make my mark on the horticulture class of 2012.

I expected this course to be as much a learning exercise for myself as it would be for my students, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Here are a few things I learned while teaching.

1) Lesson preparation will take longer than you anticipate

Before accepting the position I tried to guess how much time I would need to devote to the different projects/duties I have on the go:

Time Management Guess

An example of poorly estimated time commitments (and poor penmanship)

You probably guessed that those 6 hours/week of blogging didn’t happen, with much of that time being spent on lecture preparation. The amount of time needed to prepare lectures from scratch really blew me away, and I usually ended up spending at least one day on the weekend plus all day Monday & Tuesday getting ready for my 5 hour lecture on Wednesday. Because IPM isn’t my area of expertise, a lot of my time was spent on background research, getting up to speed on topics before trying to teach it back to my students. Theoretically that prep time would go down if I was teaching something I was more familiar with (i.e. taxonomy or general insect diversity), but the decrease probably wouldn’t be that dramatic. I must admit that I learned and retained more having to teach these topics than I did as a student sitting through class…


2) Five hour lectures require creativity (and a good night’s sleep)

A 5 hour class is not an ideal learning environment, especially for a group of students who would much prefer to be outside! In order to try and retain their attention, I broke my class into 4 segments with short breaks in between: 1 hour of review & quiz covering the previous week’s work, 45 minute lecture on Topic A, 1 hour lecture on Topic B, and 1.5 hour pest identification lab. I found this worked pretty well, with the students still paying attention through most of the classes, and only occasionally head bobbing (which is pretty hilarious to see from the front of the room, albeit a little disheartening).

Trying to keep the students engaged for each of these lessons required a little more work. I found YouTube to be invaluable, providing a lot of great resources to help illustrate my points (and give me a chance to grab a sip of water). If you’re interested, I’ve created a playlist of all the videos I included (or promoted) in my lectures; 72 clips in all. Some of them might seem a little odd out of context, but they made sense (mostly). Of all the videos I showed, I think I got the largest reaction out of the early DDT propaganda videos; seems the students didn’t like the idea of eating their cereal with a helping of insecticide…

I tried to draw on my natural history & pop culture knowledge to draw the students into the topics. Whether it was using Jacob from the Twilight series to introduce the concept of the “silver bullet” (heh) or using movie plots to explain the differences between invasive species control tactics (Containment = Outbreak; Control = Night of the Living Dead; Eradication = Independence Day), by bringing pop culture references into the lecture I could usually get the students to show signs of life. My students also seemed to enjoy parasititism, so anytime I could find a way to work a parasite into a topic I did.

Also, it seems giving a 5 hour lecture is physically exhausting! I’m not sure whether it was the standing/pacing or the mental marathon to stay ahead of the students, but I was pretty wiped each afternoon following my class. Make sure to eat your Wheaties prior to teaching, and have something to drink nearby!


3) Blog posts are a great way to keep students engaged outside of the classroom

Every week I assigned my students a blog post to read, and rewarded those that read it with a bonus question on the next week’s quiz. It was a great way to expose the students to topics and stories that tied back to our lectures but which weren’t necessarily about IPM. Judging by how many students got the bonus question correct each week I think they enjoyed the posts as well. Here are the posts I assigned over the semester (they’re all worth a read, believe me):

The Home Bug Garden – Clivia Foodweb: Part II

Not Exactly Rocket Science – The world’s biggest market (and it’s underground)

This Scientific Life – Berry Butts: Parasitized Black Ants Resemble Red Berries

The Beacon News – Hunting for the super-bug

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Since pythons invaded, Florida’s mammal populations have crashed

BioBlog – blood-sucking vampire moths!

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Scientists and tourists bring thousands of alien seeds into Antarctica Insects – Before You Mulch, Read This


Look Ma, no wings! (female Fall Cankerworm - Alsophila pometaria)

4) Seeing a student make a breakthrough makes all the hard work worthwhile!

It’s amazingly rewarding when a student asks a question that shows they’re engaged and curious about a topic. Case in point, while discussing gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) I noted that adult females don’t fly, instead waiting for males to come to them. Having discussed the Fall Cankerworm1 a few minutes earlier, one of my students eagerly asked why female gypsy moths invest energy in developing wings which they never use2? Suffice to say I could hardly answer because I was geeking out over the question! Not only was she clearly connecting the dots between ideas, but she was applying advanced ecological & evolutionary concepts to something she’d only just been introduced to! SO AWESOME. It was these sort of moments that made every second I spent on lecture preparation worthwhile!

Of all the things I learned over the course of the semester, the most important was that I really enjoy teaching! I’ve had some experience with teaching before3, but never to this degree. There are certainly some areas of my teaching that I’d like to improve on moving forward, but overall the semester was a success, and my students walked away happy (or so they tell me at least). This course was a nice confirmation that I’m heading down the correct career path, and I’m already excited to give it another shot in the future.

IPM Class Photo 2012

My class on our grower field trip. Thanks for a great semester everyone!



1 – Female Fall Cankerworms are also flightless, but have wings that are reduced to tiny little stubs.

2 – This is almost an exact quote, she actually said “invest energy”. It blew my mind in a good way!

3 – I’ve given several guest lectures at the University of Guelph and was a teacher’s assistant on an entomology field course.

Mar 122012

I’d like to introduce Dr. Blake Bextine, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Tyler who specializes in the interactions between plants, insects and pathogens in agricultural ecosystems. While at the Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno last fall, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Bextine speak on his use of Facebook to facilitate undergraduate student learning. I thought it was an interesting discussion and so I invited Blake to share his ideas here.

The statements that will be made in this article should be prefaced by saying that I have mixed feelings about technology in the classroom. On one hand, I am a strong believer that the one-on-one interactions between the student and teacher or between a student and another student are very difficult to replicate with technology. On the other hand, technology can facilitate these interactions by adding a forum where students that traditionally do not participate are more comfortable. I also teach in the sciences, not any other subjects, so I cannot comment on the outcomes of using technology (strictly on-line delivery) in other disciplines.

At the 2011 Southeast Branch ESA meeting I spoke at a session on Technology in Entomology Teaching and took the hardline against on-line teaching but heard several talks from people that have has much success using alternative delivery methods. Realizing that I had not taught this way before, I decided to give it a shot in the Fall 2011 semester in my Cell Molecular Biology class at the University of Texas at Tyler. I took a summer coarse on Technology in the Classroom and was ready to go with my new hybrid lecture course (50% in class/50% on-line) when the year began. I found both good and bad things came from my experience. One positive that surprised me was that students whom were usually quiet in class were more vocal in on-line discussion. Student comments were also easier to track and participation was easy to monitor. I found my way to engage them by tracking them. A negative that surprised me was that it was easy for me to start a discussion and then let the class go, which lead to me stepping away and engaging with them less. This brought a dilemma that I had not previously considered…we always talk about “student engagement”, but what about “teacher engagement”?

So, I think we have much to think about with respect to technology in the classroom. There is no “one size fits all” answer to being a proponent or opponent of the new teaching methods. To use a few clichés, we are operating in the “new normal” and there has been a “paradigm shift”. We need to utilize technology when it fits and avoid using it simply because it makes economic sense.

A major point that needs to be considered is what technology we should utilize. I have seen classes where students have to learn to use three computer programs to access class content. Often, we think students in this current generation all know how to use every type of technology we can throw at them…they don’t. In fact, many have limited knowledge, often not past using Apps on their smartphone. That is why I like to utilize technology that they are familiar with, like Facebook. It is free, almost everyone has seen it, and most people check it often throughout the day. The result is no learning curve and very fast adoption at the beginning of the semester. It provides a platform to post media, articles, and comments while organizing the posts in chronological order. Facebook is currently used in all my classes as well as my research laboratory. It has become the central way we keep in touch. In short, I am utilizing technology to better engage the students by meeting them halfway with “their” technology and as a side product, I have become better engaged in the process.