National Insect Week

By George Fussey, Curator at Eton College Natural history Museum

With the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics taking up so much media attention recently it is probably not surprising that National Insect Week  hasn’t blipped on to your radar screen.

To put this state of affairs right, Royal Holloway, University of London has teamed up with Eton College Natural History Museum to promote the most common organisms on the planet to local schoolchildren at two high profile events.

With help from Royal Holloway students Lucy Foster and Kiran Ghadave, we ran an environmental stand at the biennial Windsor Great Park Schools’ Open Day.  The event in the Great Park attracts 1600 children from a range of local schools and so it didn’t take long for me, as a museum curator, and the RHUL Science Outreach officer, Lucy Yeomans, to get involved with this tremendous opportunity for outreach.
The Windsor Estate is already known throughout the world for its conservation and biodiversity work and we were delighted to be tasked to raise awareness amongst local schoolchildren of just what lies on their doorstep.  Our aim was to raise awareness of insect biodiversity in the Great Park using live animals from Royal Holloway and a very few of the 10,000 insect specimens kept at the Museum.   But how to go about this?

‘Hands-on’ activities with objects as delicate as insects is never easy so we used insects set in acrylic to allow students to handle and closely observe the features of groups and allow children to establish, say, the difference between a beetle and a bug and a dragonfly and a damselfly.  The fact that real dragonflies were patrolling the inside of our marquee whilst all this was going on made life more interesting.  Handling embedded insects also has the advantage that even the most squeamish child can be persuaded to hold something like a stag beetle.  This activity really works well and leads on to an activity called Inventomology.   Once the children are aware of the characteristics possessed by all insects and have some idea of the sheer variety of insect orders, and the sorts of issues involved in classifying them.  We then encourage the children to use their imaginations and design their own insect, labelled appropriately.

Meanwhile, in the same large marquee, other children were learning about the variety of food chains that operate in and around an oak tree.  Woodpeckers and Tawny owls from the Museum overlooked the display whilst some of the unique species to be found on ancient oaks were highlighted.  The Great Park is the United Kingdom’s most important site for the violet click beetle, royal splinter crane fly and stag beetle to name but a few priority species.  Through activities like this, children soon understand how a food web works and the concept of the Balance of Nature.  Children really do understand, and quickly, why the balance of Nature is so important – it’s just a crying shame that quite a lot of adults and politicians don’t get it!  Anyway, because in theory educated children turn into educated adults, we should be hopeful that tomorrow’s generation will put right the damage that we are currently doing to the planet.
The third and final activity that our Environmental Education tent explored the various ways insects can be collected and then challenged the children to think through what data the budding entomologist needs to record to be scientifically useful.  Just to develop this thinking for a second, the Natural History Museum in Eton contains 18,000 objects and it would be nothing short of an eco-crime if all these objects weren’t in some way also to contribute to our scientific dataset (and therefore our understanding) about the local environment.  Bulk that up to the other natural history museum, the bigger one in South Kensington with its 70 million specimens, and all the children can appreciate that collecting without data is a crime scene without a forensics team.  Dealing with 1600 children arriving in small groups over a morning requires unquenchable enthusiasm from the staff and not a little stamina, but the experience of reaching a lot of young people with a clear message about the organisms that play such a vital part on the world ecological stage made it very worthwhile indeed.

Our second event to mark National Insect Week is on a smaller scale but the opportunities for enthusing about insects were just as evident.  We ran an ‘Incredible Insects!’ Family Learning Event on the last day of NIW in the Eton College Natural History Museum itself.  The event sold out quickly, which was encouraging, and probably proves that insects don’t lag too far behind dinosaurs in their pulling power.  Parents and children learnt together about insects (in particular) and arthropods (in general).  Special activities included thinking through insect locomotion and extending this approach to thinking about millipede movement too.  How is it that millipedes don’t trip up over all those legs!?  Trying to answer that involved forming a huge human chain (like a conga) and getting all those present to walk like a millipede!

The Museum actually contains a working model millipede that answers all the questions one might want to ask about myriapod locomotion.  Made of Meccano and nearly a metre long, the model was used by zoologists at Manchester Museum (nearly 40 years ago now) and illustrates perfectly the coordinated Mexican wave that passes down the millipede‘s legs to ensure smooth forward progress.  Whether the ‘congatastic’ human millipede matched it for smooth efficiency remains in some doubt!

Other activities exposed parents and their children to the Museum itself as they plied our arthropod trail, getting them to sort out crustaceans from myriapods and insects from arachnids, and taking them to every corner of the museum.

The advantage of all this outreach and the developing collaboration between RHUL and Eton College Natural History Museum should be obvious.  Not only does it raise the scientific profile of both institutions but it is giving graduate and undergraduate students valuable opportunities for honing their teaching skills and engaging the public with their science.  This means leaving behind the long worded terminology of academe and learning how to express complex concepts in simple and everyday language.  More than ever, we need scientists who can present a simple message in an engaging way.  As yet another UN Summit for Sustainability fades from the memory, who could argue that we need a public who not only understand ecology but who are enthusiastic about it.  For those scientists who don’t have the time for outreach, do you think you might be missing the point?

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About rhulscience

The Faculty of Science at Royal Holloway, University of London
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