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Cool Class: Bug Boot Camp

Cool Class: Bug Boot Camp

katy kennyKaty Kenny decided to take John Abbott’s Field Entomology class in the summer of 2007 for two reasons. One was that she’d heard from friends that the three week “mini-mester” course, which Abbott teaches just after the spring semester ends, was interesting. The other was that she wanted to overcome her fear of bugs.

“It helped,” says Kenny, a biology and spanish double major. “You’re immersed, learning about insects, for three weeks straight. By the end, when one of the other students came back to the base camp with a giant tarantula, I was able to let it walk over my hands. Also, I just really enjoyed the class. We weren’t just individual students in a lecture hall anymore. We became a team.”

Although Abbott, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences and the curator of entomology at the Texas Natural Science Center, teaches a number of courses with significant field components, Field Entomology is unique, he says, in that it’s entirely in the field.

“I think of it almost as a language immersion course,” he says. “I’ve never done the math, but I suspect that in that three weeks, students end up doing more hours of work than they do in a typical long semester course. It’s 24-7.”

Since he began teaching the course in the summer of 2000, Abbott has taken students into the wilds of Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas—“as far west as Roswell, and east into the Ozarks”—where he’s set them loose to find, collect, and curate beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, and any other kinds of insects that make their homes in the ecosystems of the southwest.

Students spend three or four days in each of three or four locations (lodgings range from beds, full kitchens and Internet access to tents, sleeping bags and propane stoves). Each student focuses on one family on insects, and each day, everyone gets up early in the morning and heads out to collect, typically returning to base for lunch before heading out again for the afternoon.

Abbott circulates and teaches while they collect, and in the evenings after dinner, he gives a lecture that he’s improvised based on what happened that day. After that, they set up a blacklight to attract more insects, and students continue collecting, identifying and pinning until they go to bed, often working until one or two in the morning.

“It’s kind of bug boot camp,” says Glene Mynhardt, who took the class in 2003, then tagged along for the next two summers, and is now a doctoral student in entomology at Ohio State. “I loved it. It changed my life. Dr. Abbott was so enthusiastic; it was like he’d never taught it before, as if it were totally new to him as well. I’d never even been camping before.”

Because many of the students have little or no background in entomology, Abbott’s teaching covers the gamut, starting with the basics and branching out to touch on whatever’s appropriate to the particular ecosystem or the insects that have been found that day.

“We find unusual and rare things on every trip,” says Abbott, who is furthering his own research, into insect (particularly dragonfly) diversity, while he’s teaching. “Honestly, by being in the field so much, they get the best out of me, or at least a different side of me. I don’t even look at it as teaching, but rather getting the opportunity to share with people what I love.”

This article also appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Focus magazine.

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Q & A with Kathy Davis

Comments 1

 
Guest - Jacinto Visker on Monday, 16 July 2012 07:55

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click here to investigate, Youre so cool! I dont assume Ive learn something like this before. So nice to seek out someone with a few unique thoughts on this subject. realy thanks for beginning this up. this website is something that's needed on the web, somebody with slightly originality. helpful process for bringing one thing new to the internet!
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