My response to “Can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?”

The Bug Geek is becoming the champion of challenges! Last week she illustrated in clever graphical form the emotions she had encountered during the manuscript writing process, and this week she tops it with a challenge to see how well we can talk to 10-year-olds about science. I played along with the first one just for fun (see The Ups and Downs of Bug Collecting—I also earned the tag “easily-entertained professional research entomologist with too much time on his hands” for my efforts!), but the second challenge hit closer to home. You see, like the Geek I believe strongly that the responsibility for recruiting the next generation of scientists rests squarely on the shoulders of today’s scientists. Who else but us will excite them about science and show them not only the importance that science plays in our daily lives, but how cool and fun it is!

I’ve been a professional entomologist for three decades now, and for most of that time I’ve also been involved in giving presentations to children about insects and the science of entomology. I also happen to be an avocational entomologist—insects are not just my livelihood, but also my hobby! I live, breath, and eat insects (okay, maybe not so much the latter), and wherever I have lived my name has quickly made it to the local schools as someone who can keep the kids occupied for an hour or two. I have done dozens, perhaps even hundreds of “kid outreach” sessions during the past 30 years—how could I not take up the Geeks’s challenge?! The only question was which “entomologist” I should take the challenge as—the professional one who conducts insect research on biotech crops, or the avocational one who travels the country and beyond looking for new and rare beetles. Ultimately I decided to try both (you knew that was coming!), so here I present my 250-word (precisely) attempts to convince a 10-year-old in written form that science, and specifically entomology, is fun, cool, and incredibly important for the future of our planet.

Professional

I work for a company that helps farmers grow crops that don’t need to be sprayed with insecticides. These “insect-protected crops” are grown by farmers all across the world and help the environment by reducing the need for insecticides to grow our food. We create these plants by adding a small piece of DNA in the laboratory so that the plants produce a protein inside their leaves that only insects don’t like. Not all of the plants produce the protein, so we have to test the plants to make sure insects can’t feed on them. I do this by growing plants in the greenhouse, and when they are big enough I put insects that we grow in our laboratory on the plants to see if they can eat the leaves. If the plants don’t get eaten, I collect the seeds and grow them outside like a farmer would do. If the plants don’t get eaten by insects outside either, then other people in my company test the plants to make sure they grow normally and produce as much food as plants without the protein. Insects might become immune to the proteins, so I also test new proteins to find new ones we can use in case the old ones stop working. I mix the protein with a special insect diet to see how much protein is needed to make the insect stop eating. I love my job because I get to study bugs while helping to improve the environment.

Avocational

I have the best hobby in the world—I travel across the US and other countries looking for beetles! There are more kinds of beetles in the world than any other kind of animal, and most of them are unknown to science. When I find a new beetle, I get to give it whatever name I want. Even many of the ones that we know about we don’t know where they live or what they eat. The heaviest insect in the world is a beetle (the Goliath Beetle from Africa) – it weighs more than a mouse! Some of the tiniest insects of all are beetles also – it would take a quarter million feather-winged beetles to weigh as much as one Goliath Beetle! There are beetles in the Amazon rain forest that play “King of the Log.” Males find a rotten log and sit on it, and when another male comes along he knocks him off with his horns. He does this to save the log for a female beetle so she can lay her eggs in it. The baby beetles eat the rotten wood. I especially like tiger beetles – they have stripes and bright, metallic colors that glitter in the sun. They use their long legs, big eyes, and huge sickle-shaped jaws to run down and catch other insects and eat them. Many kinds of tiger beetles can live in only one place on earth – we must do everything we can to protect their habitats so they don’t go extinct.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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16 Responses to My response to “Can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?”

  1. TGIQ says:

    1. I meant “easily-entertained professional research entomologist with too much time on his hands” with the greatest imaginable amount of respect and affection :)

    2. These are both fantastic. GREAT contributions and wonderful examples for others. You’ve clearly had some practice at this :)

    3. About this bit: “it would take a quarter million feather-winged beetles to weigh as much as one Goliath Beetle!” MIND BLOWN. That is a fantastic little factoid that I’ll probably never forget, and will likely share often with anyone willing to listen.

    Thanks, Ted!!! :D

    • Thank you, Geek, for the inspiration. And might I say that your recent posts and the interactions from multiple bloggers that have resulted are exactly what I feared blogging was losing – thanks for helping to lead the charge back!

  2. My son is almost 10 and he thoroughly enjoyed this. He’s been obsessed with insects since he was 3 or 4. He’s never feared them and became terribly upset one time when he held one a little too tightly and it bit him. He just couldn’t understand why his little friend took a nip from him. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Wow! My first thought to the question was, “who BETTER to talk to about science!?”. At that age their minds are still so open! Love this post!

  4. Holy crap these are awesome Ted! I reread them several times just to enjoy them, well done!

  5. My 8 year old son has been fascinated with insects since he was three and started his own collection when he was five. The entomologists and bug enthusiasts he’s met at museums and other events have always been so generous and excited to share their love of bugs. We even once got a big box of specimens in the mail from one entomologist and a private tour of a museum’s entomology department from another! This kind of mentoring and sharing makes a big impression on kids and helps keep their interest growing.

  6. I love this – and I’m sure the kids do as well!

  7. James C. Trager says:

    Ted (and TGIQ) – What a great idea! Like Ted, I have both a profession and an avocation involving insects, and I also work with children sometimes. So I had to write two short essays (a sneaky way to get around the word limit), but I still couldn’t get them under 250 words each (but at least they’re not much over). So here goes:

    The naturalist
    I work at a nature reserve in Missouri, which protects the habitats of plants and animals that grow wild in our region. The reserve covers 4 square miles, which seems big, but actually is tiny, just a dot on a map, compared to the surrounding unprotected lands. The reserve contains woods, prairies, rocky meadows called glades, a river, ponds and wetlands. Each of these habitats has its own special life: for example, tall reeds and soft, juicy plants that like to have their feet wet – er – roots growing in water, in wetlands, but small, tough plants in the dry glades, which would drown in soggy wetland soil. Animals vary by habitats, too — Squirrels, racoons, songbirds, and numerous kinds of caterpillars live in forests, but rabbits, coyotes, sparrows and grasshoppers are more typical in the prairie. It’s my job to know the names and habits of these creatures, and to share this knowledge with other people. Another really important part of my job is to take care of these habitats. Sometimes this means rebuilding them after they were destroyed by human activities, or because they became overgrown by plants from other parts of the world that we call “invasives”, another word for alien invaders! Controlling invasives is definitely the hardest and least fun part of my job, but it is necessary to allow the local wild plants to grow and feed the wildlife, birds and insects. Creating new natural habitats, and restoring “sick” ones are among the most satisfying parts of my job.

    The ant man
    I have another kind of work that I don’t get paid for, but still love to do. I study ants. My interest in ants began when I was 5 years old, and I never grew out of it. Even then, I would carefully watch ants and learned about the habits of the different kinds that I could recognize. In college, I studied biology, so I could do research on ants. Then, I went to more college (graduate school), to continue studying ants. And finally, after I became a doctor of entomology (the science of insects), with a specialty in myrmecology (the science of ants), I got a job researching fire ants and others. This job took me to countries in South America, where fire ants came from. I learned Spanish and Portuguese, so I would be able to talk to people when traveling there – yes, about ants, but also about other interesting things, even sharing stories about our everyday lives and families. Now, I work in a job that is more about plants than ants, but I still study ants when I have time, and I write scientific papers about ant classification, giving names and describing characteristics of new ant species, never before recognized. Though there are 14,000 named kinds of ants, studies like mine continue to reveal many new species each year. It hard even to estimate how many species of ants exist in the world, but it’s safe to say, there are 1000’s yet to be discovered and named, including a few right here in Missouri!

    • Wow, this could’ve been a blog post of its own.

      It would be interesting to take these different versions from those of us who have offered up something and actually “field test” them against a group of 10-yr-olds. Might be interesting to see if our idea of what sounds good for a 10-yr-old and the reality of it actually intersect.

      • James C. Trager says:

        Thanks, Ted. I thought of that, and also though of double posting it here and at TGIQ’s. Anyway, an interesting excercise, and like you say, worth a field test.

  8. Pingback: Explaining My Research to 10 Year Olds | The Dragonfly Woman

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