instilling "insect respect"

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of volunteering as part of the Bay Area Science Festival for an “Insect Respect” tour at Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center. The Bay Area Science Festival is the San Francisco Bay’s largest science education event, spanning a wide array of science and tech fields, and I highly recommend checking it out (there is seriously something for everyone!).

The night before the event, I was frantically cutting out and coloring flowers to use in a “waggle dance” game in the garden. And also fretting about how the day was going to go. I did not feel particularly prepared, and my late night crafting delirium was not helping. But then the morning of the event arrived, and I fueled up at Philz coffee shop (to which I may be legitimately addicted) before heading over to Half Moon Bay.

As children and adults trickled in, the Ranch Director (Dr. Virginia Bolshakova) asked about what traits make an insect an insect. I am not sure what I was expecting, but these kids knew so much about bugs! So much that I was both incredibly excited for the future of entomology and also more intimidated about my lesson.

With the fundamentals established, we moved on to stream sampling for invertebrates, filling out a “catch and release” survey to measure the biotic index of the water.

After lunch, another UC Berkeley grad student and I led the tour through the gardens and compost piles into the world of pollinators and decomposers (obviously my favorite). Our “waggle dance” game had a few kinks, which I suppose is expected for a trial run of something novel, but hopefully it got the kids thinking about how bees communicate and forage without words. To finish up the tour, we sifted through the compost, searching for insects that break down the organic material.

Sifting through the compost to find decomposers.

Sifting through the compost to find decomposers.

Graduate school can so easily become all-consuming, so participating in events like these that take me away from the bubble that is the Valley Life Sciences Building is both cathartic and personally fulfilling. Interactive outdoor learning experiences are invaluable for ecological education, and places like Elkus Ranch are paving the way for widespread investigative science. Although ecology gets (incredibly) complicated and surprisingly quantitative (thank goodness for statisticians), many brilliant questions and studies start with a simple observation. Maybe a plant keeps cropping up in the same part of your yard. Or only one type of plant in your garden is visited by aphids. Often, these observations are far from brilliant. But without them, we would be stumped and stuck.

Getting people, especially young students, to engage with nature in this way is critical. But to do this—to stimulate curiosity about our planet's patterns and processes, we need to promote exploration and engagement of the natural world. Science is a dynamic process, an experimental method that provides us with the tools to question, to learn, and to question some more. Nothing about science is insular or neat (Berkeley has a great page about "Understanding Science" that hints at the overwhelming complexity of the discipline). Ecology is particularly messy (and wonderful) because nature is not predictable and does not always do what you want or expect it to do.

It took me until college to fully appreciate and engage in ecology—to become “Dirt Girl.” Although I don’t regret my pre-med inclinations in my early years, I wish I had been exposed to ecology sooner. Because honestly, if it had not been for my exceptional undergrad courses and research experiences in Prof. Meyer’s lab (and also the unwavering support of my parents), I may have kept plodding down the medical school path for fear of going against the grain. Hopefully, by helping with programs like those hosted by Elkus Ranch, I can keep other Dirt Girls and Guys from staying hidden for so long. And after watching those kids get soaked in the creek searching for bugs (one girl even took home a water sample to look at with her own microscope) and enthusiastically picking through compost, I am hopeful.