On outreach, volunteering, and the importance of bug stickers

Friday, October 6th, 2017


When I was in grad school (studying chemical and biomedical engineering), I was struggling with the “what do I want to be when I grow up” question. I love science, but I also think there is a huge disconnect between scientists and other people. I was in my 20s before I knew what an engineer was, and as a kid I knew scientists existed, but I had no idea you could actually be one. Scientific literacy is super important, especially right now with man-children in our government saying science is up for debate… 

This is the reason I got really into museums and their role in public education. Almost the entirety of my scientific knowledge until I started studying engineering was from trips to museums, so naturally I wanted to be involved in exhibit planning and outreach programming. I was serious enough to enter the museum studies program in grad school, but struggled with the thought of finishing grad school with massive amounts of debt to work in a notoriously underfunded field where my salary would actually be less than my fellowship stipends. 

When I graduated, I cut my losses and got an engineering job. But when 2017 rolled around, I signed up for the Texas Master Naturalist training course. I had met some master naturalists at a few bioblitzes, and looked up with that meant. Basically, master naturalist are educated volunteers who work on service and outreach projects to preserve and encourage appreciation for the natural resources of Texas. I eagerly awaited the start of the first training course after I graduated and had free time again, and once the course started in January, I dove in head first. By the time I finished training and became certified, I had already racked up tons of advanced training and volunteer hours, and was already involved in more service projects and administrative tasks than any other person in my training class.

What is amazing to me is how I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do in a museum, except it’s even better. In my master naturalist chapter, there are only a couple other people into bugs, and I am by far the most fanatical about the topic. I bring bugs for show-and-tell almost every chapter meeting, and am getting people who actively disliked bugs to look at them a little closer to appreciate them, and it’s awesome. 

But what I really love is talking about bugs with kids. Kids are so curious and so excited about learning (especially about “weird” stuff), but a lot of adults are boring and uninterested in having conversations with kids about things like spiders and poop. I brought a bunch of my bugs to an Audubon event in May, and kids were swarming my table the whole day. They were excited about bugs, I was excited about bugs. I had them try to find my camouflaging stick insects. I let them manhandle my dragonflies. I let them look at caterpillar poop in the microscope. I listened to them tell me about seeing a leaf-miner eating a leaf. I showed them how to use a sweep net, then we looked at what they caught in the microscope and it was the best thing ever. I loved it and this is what I was  meant to do.

One of the Master Naturalist projects I got involved with is Junior Master Naturalists. It’s basically what it sounds like: we have an after-school program with 5th and 6th graders, and share with them essentially the same topics we learn during our training. The organizers wanted them to keep an observation journal, but said that so few kids actually used theirs last year. I suggested making templates for observations that would help guide them through the process of recording nature, and replacing any and all powerpoint-style presentations with printing out pages they could put in their binder to reference later. To encourage them to actually make observations for their journals, I suggested having a passport-style check-in page, where they get a sticker for making observations between sessions. Since I suggested it, I took it upon myself to make the journal pages (and they turned out AWESOME). And I also took it upon myself to provide the stickers.

Yesterday was the first Junior Master Naturalist session. Last year, there were only 8 kids in the program. Yesterday, we were expecting 12 (already more than we anticipated!), but 17 kids showed up. The topic for the session was journaling and entomology. The activity: I handed out mystery specimens in cups, and the kids were to make their first observation of the bug in class by drawing it, describing what they saw, and writing about what they thought it was. I brought everything from a dotted wolf spider exuvia to eastern leaf-footed bug eggs. After making observations, we split into three groups. Two groups got to look at specimens in the microscopes: a female butterfly that had died and had part of her abdomen eaten away, so you can see the eggs inside her (!!), and a cluster of Zelus assassin bug eggs that had been parasitized by wasps. The third group got to huddle around the tank of caterpillars I brought, which also had a stick insect nymph, a leaf beetle, and a chrysalis. We talked about molting, camouflage, parasites, and all sorts of things. 

At the very end of the session, I went around and gave everybody their stickers for writing their first journal entry. They LOVED them.


I had initially bought these for myself (I mean, come on), but when the idea of the journals came up, I knew what these had to be used for. I have a lot of frustration about science information being dumbed down for kids, and a lot of my struggles with entomology now are because I was always told something completely incorrect when I was a kid. That’s why I’m really focused on being scientifically accurate when explaining things, even if they’re a little complicated. But it’s hard when you’re dealing with things with animals on them, because the designers have usually never seen a bug/fish/bird in their lives so the items are woefully inaccurate. It’s impossible to find anatomically correct insects on clothing, as toys, as stickers, etc., so when I saw these stickers I HAD to buy them.

I’ll probably never know what kind of effect I’m having on the kids I interact with at events like these, but I hope what I share with them will encourage them to explore science and nature on their own as they get older, and stay unapologetically as excited about these things as I am. Shoutout to @marycapaldi for these amazing stickers.

Oh, and PS: Master Naturalists have milestones when you reach a certain number of volunteer hours. You need 40 a year to stay certified, and you get a special pin when you reach 250, 500, 1000, etc hours. I’m getting my 250 hour pin at our next meeting. Hoping to get my 500 hour pin by the end of winter. :)

October 6, 2017

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