sealPurdue News

November 1994

This class will really bug you

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. --Remember being 8 years old, running around the yard chasing after lightning bugs, fascinated with those brightly lit creatures of the night ? Whether it's following the chirp of a cricket or chasing after the bright wings of a Monarch butterfly, children are fascinated with bugs.

Alan York, Purdue University professor of entomology, says that children are naturally curious people. "We can turn that natural curiosity into a source of knowledge," he says.

His Purdue class, "Insects in Elementary Education," shows future teachers how to use bugs in a new way -- in the classroom.

York says that there are fewer than six universities in the nation that include this type of class for students majoring in elementary education.

The purpose of the class is to give these teachers-to-be an interesting tool to use later in their own classrooms. Bugs can be used to teach many different subjects, including science and math, York says.

"All too often, learning is not made to be fun, and this class teaches future educators how to spice up a not-so-interesting lesson," he says.

For example, understanding how a human heart works may be a difficult concept for children to grasp. But, by comparing the human circulatory system to that of an insect and measuring the heartbeat of an insect at different temperatures, all of a sudden they gain understanding and interest.

Another reason to use bugs for teaching, he says, is that they are everywhere. "Dinosaurs seem to be used in classroom instruction all of the time," he says. "But children can't see living dinosaurs; they see living bugs every day."

Future teachers must get past their own fears of handling insects before introducing them into their own classrooms, he says. For that to occur, they must experience the bugs as a child does.

To accomplish this, York brings out many of the insects that the students will be working with. He places opened cages of hissing Madagascar cockroaches, predaceous praying mantises, and many-legged tobacco hornworms in front of the college students in his class. Whether the bugs have long antennae, fly or hiss, the reaction of everyone in the class is about the same. Many students shudder, shrink in their chairs, and gasp in fear.

York conducts a small exercise the first day that serves as a tension breaker. Andrea Ham, a senior from St. Louis, Mo. , was York's most recent guinea pig. York went over to Ham and asked her to hold out her hand. As she slowly opened her trembling hand, he placed something in it and then closed her fingers.

"I'm so afraid of bugs that I would rather let a spider crawl around in my apartment than get close enough to kill it," Ham says. "Obviously then, I was a complete wreck when he came over to me with what I thought was a big, ugly bug."

Although the big, ugly bug turned out to be a battery-operated buzzing toy that only looked and felt like the real thing, York's strategy was a success. Everyone in the class, including Ham, laughed.

A veteran of York's class, Amy Wachnicki, is a fifth-grade teacher at Burtsfield Elementary School in West Lafayette . She admits that she was anxious about taking a class about insects. "I was not interested in insects whatsoever, but I felt that it was important for me to learn and appreciate insects simply because kids are fascinated with them," she says.

York says that another way students taking his class learn about and feel more comfortable with the insects is by taking a few home with them. Students are required to raise cockroaches, mealworm beetles, baby crickets, and a colony of fruit flies at their own houses or apartments.

"Everything was fine until the cockroach was missing one day," Katrina Rhodenbaugh, a junior from Logansport, says. "After realizing the cockroach was gone, both my roommate and I were living on edge for a while, afraid to think of where it might show up. Fortunately I found it living underneath my typewriter a few days later."

York's class studies cricket communication, insect structure and identification, feeding behaviors, and the metabolism of certain bugs. Also, his students take a field trip to an apiary, where beekeepers harvest honey, to study bees and their behavior.

By the end of the course, future educators are left with many new ideas about teaching elementary students.

For example, Cathy Rudmann, a second-grade teacher at Cumberland Elementary School in West Lafayette , took York's class and uses many of the same experiments in her own class. "We study tobacco hornworms and learn about metamorphosis and life cycles," Rudmann says. "The kids love it, and at the same time they learn."

Another benefit of York's class is that it makes future elementary teachers more employable. Wachnicki says the class helped her in her job search. "I was at an advantage because I was able to include hands-on activities on my resume and communicate many practical ideas during the interview, both of which are extremely important in today's world," she says.

York's next challenge is to use insects to explain concepts to physically challenged students. "Showing" a blind person how the New Guinea stick insect protects itself from an attacker might be a daunting task, but it can be done.

To protect itself from danger, the New Guinea stick insect has an abundant supply of long, stiff, sharp spines that jet out in all directions from its body and legs, much like a porcupine. The insect squeezes its prickly leg around an enemy in order to escape a deadly situation.

"Through touch instead of sight, a blind person can feel that and experience how bugs protect themselves from predators," York says.

Source: Alan York, (765) 494-4559; Internet,
Writer: Carrie Canale, (765) 494-8402; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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