Bug Camp

Jason Weiss
September 01, 2000
butterflies in picture frame

They're after me. I can see the other kids spreading across the yellow grass of the baseball field towards the dugout we're hiding behind. It's the summer of 1989 and we're getting blown away in a game of Capture the Flag, this suburban day camp's version of Lord of the Flies. I peer out again. Two indifferent college kids, home for the summer, make a cursory effort to control the chaos, but two of the 11-year-olds have already been sent to the nurse with scrapes and bloody noses, to play Pac Man on Commodore 64s in an air-conditioned room for the rest of the afternoon. "We've gotta get out of here," I hiss. But my teammates are indifferent to our imminent capture—O'Doyle is burning ants with his glasses and Tankle is picking apart worms and tossing them in my direction. We don't stand a chance.

Flash ahead ten years, to the summer of 1999 and Penn State's University Park campus. Children are again swarming across a sunburnt field in random patterns. But take a closer look. They've got Global Positioning System devices strapped to their backs. They're swooping nets at butterflies. They're staring intently at the ground, looking for something. Eleven-year-old Will is hidden behind a tree—he's taking a head count of the number of ants marching across one of its roots and recording it in his journal. One of the supervising college students begins to round the kids up. It's time to go back to the lab.

Will is one of 40 children, ages eight to 12, who participated in the 1999 Bug Camp for Kids, run by Penn State's department of entomology with help from the College of Education. Over the past few years Bug Camp has evolved into a collaborative effort between entomology and education faculty, staff, and students. At Bug Camp, future elementary and secondary school teachers learn new ways to teach science, while kids work with scientific resources and methods that don't usually come their way in school.

The goal of Bug Camp is to use insects to make children more comfortable with the scientific method. According to Maryann Frazier of the entomology department, bugs are a natural tool for teaching science. "They're so prominent around us. They're alive and kids can see them interact and experience them in their habitat, as opposed to larger animals. All you have to do is encourage the kids where and when to look."

And kids look everywhere. For me, it wasn't summer without fireflies in a jar and caterpillars in cocoons and that pale, quiet kid on the end of the block who would eat bees on a dare. When I was growing up in the mid-'80s my father taught elementary school science in one of the worst neighborhoods in North Philadelphia. But he was ahead of his time, and, without any real resources or the Internet, he set up weather clubs and science fairs, flower gardens and bug studies. I still remember being dragged through cemeteries to look for owl pellets for his classes and climbing over what then seemed like sheer cliffs searching for shell fossils. One day he came home with a red wooden bug box and handed me a cheap plastic magnifying glass to examine the insects pinned to the board inside. Our backyard was infested with pill bugs and I named each one, tapping it on the chest to watch it curl up into a ball. Fifteen years later I'm not sure why.

striped beatles

Entomologist Heidi Appel, who organized Bug Camp with Frazier, is not surprised. "Bugs are bizarre—they have superhero features, like the action figures that a kid would buy in a toy store. Kids also encounter bugs a lot. They're right there in their environment all the time."

Plus, adds Frazier, "Kids are intrigued by being grossed out." The gross-out factor may explain one of Advanced Bug Camp's more exciting experiments, in which the children learned all about parasitoids, organisms that live in or on the body of a single host during development, eventually killing the host. The kids watched the parasitoid, a Cotesia congregata wasp, lay eggs inside a hornworm caterpillar and then, a few days later, watched the caterpillar get eaten alive from the inside out once the eggs had hatched.

Frazier and Appel organized the first Bug Camp for Teachers in 1995 after local elementary school teachers asked for ideas on teaching science. The next summer, Bug Camp for Kids opened its doors. At the same time, Carla Zembal-Saul, an assistant professor of science education, was looking for more teaching opportunities for her undergraduate elementary education students. She suggested that her students help teach Bug Camp, which they did, starting in 1998. "It ended up working really well for everyone involved," she says. "Of course at first there was some hesitation. The entomologists were still a bit iffy about working with children, and the education students were still very leery about working with bugs." But with some time, the faculty members, graduates, and undergraduates from both sides got used to each other's field of study, working by the motto (printed on their T-shirts), "We won't step on the bugs if you don't step on the kids."

boy at bug camp looks at beatles

After two summers spent with Bug Camp, Frazier and Robinne Weiss, now director of programs at Shavers Creek Nature Center, developed Advanced Bug Camp for Kids in 1998. The Advanced Camp would involve older children, aged ten to 12, working on independent research projects of their own. Bringing elementary education majors and entomology graduate students in as instructors for the advanced camp provided the older children with individualized attention and exposed the undergraduates to different science teaching methods. Appel says, "This would give the education students the chance to learn with campers what science is and how it's done." "It's difficult for our prospective teachers to get that kind of experience anywhere else," adds Zembal-Saul. And so she, Appel, and Weiss, along with graduate students Leigh Boardman and Pat Friedrichsen, designed a course based on her students' experiences that would help other education students prepare for Bug Camp.

The resulting collaboration became Entomology 315: Teaching With Insects. A group of 12 elementary education undergraduates took an introductory-level entomology course, along with about 75 students from other majors that required a knowledge of entomology. The first half of the semester concentrated on insect basics, with everyone attending one large class. At the start of the second half, the education students broke off into their own team.

"We used what we learned about insects and put it into a classroom setting," says Kristy Williams, a senior majoring in elementary education. The close contact with the bugs could be stressful at times—like when an instructor put a three-inch Madagascar hissing cockroach on the shoulder of the still-squeamish Williams. But that was the point of the class. "I wouldn't even touch a bug before," Williams admitted, "but by the beginning of last summer I was handling Madagascar hissing cockroaches without even flinching." She was now eager to instruct children on the studying, handling, catching—even eating—of a variety of large or intimidating insects.

Bug Camp for Kids is as camp-like as possible. The kids come in at nine and leave at four. In between are the usual summer camp activities, though naturally all bug-related. There are sing-alongs, crafts such as T-shirt making and origami, and the ubiquitous brown-bag lunch. But that's where a typical summer camp experience similar to those of my own childhood ends and a scientific (yet fun) learning environment begins. Each day the children were piled into school buses and taken to various parks and farms, such as the Laurel Haven Conservation Education Center, owned by the School of Forestry. There, they searched for various insects and meticulously recorded everything they could find in their bug journals, which were filled with crayon drawings of their favorite insects and tables where they made note of what they found: what types of insects they saw, how many, what they were doing. The kids in the advanced camp even used Global Positioning System devices, on loan from Penn State, to map out the location of each particular insect within a given area. Out in the field the children saw the concepts they were learning about come to life: the predator-prey interaction of beetles and ants, how a cricket sleeps, even the social order of bees in a beehive, where campers were zipped into their own beekeeping suits.

skinny beatle

For the undergraduates, there was more to Bug Camp than just getting over the feeling of ickiness that hits when confronted with a brown cockroach that's hissing at you. Williams, who's interested in the affects of mass media on children's development, picked up on a peculiar side-story to Bug Camp: While the children showed little-to-no fear in the face of a variety of creatures that creep, crawl, slither, and fly, their parents didn't usually share their enthusiasm. "Teachers reinforce kids to be squeamish in the classroom, especially girls," she says, "but when you see a bug, if you turn it into an educational thing instead of a crisis, then things would probably be different." She's a good example herself. "I hated touching bugs before last year," she says. "My grandmother and mother were very bug-phobic when I was growing up, which I think I picked up on. They didn't even want me taking 315 when they first heard about it."

At Bug Camp she saw equal levels of enthusiasm on the part of both boys and girls. She takes that as a good sign. "If we expose little girls to dirt and insects when they're young, they won't be screaming at a spider on the wall when they're 20." When Williams's three younger sisters came to visit bug camp for a day last summer, she was pleased to see they had no qualms about getting close to insects. As for Williams herself, she now keeps four pet Madagascar hissing cockroaches in an aquarium in her apartment (much to the horror of her roommates).

The kids in Advanced Bug Camp were not only older, in most cases they had gone through the beginners' level of Bug Camp at least twice. At the advanced camp the focus was on scientific inquiry, which, says Zembal-Saul, "engages learners in doing more authentic science, like designing their own scientific investigations, and especially collecting and working with data."

Sam, a 13-year-old who has attended Advanced Bug Camp for the past two summers, knows why the camp works. "It's a camp, which is fun, and kids are interested in creepy, crawly things that look cool." Sam plays second base for his Little League team and attends a charter school in State College that uses many of the same teaching methods as Bug Camp. He and his group decided to look at bacteria during the week of advanced camp. Following some brief instruction, they injected caterpillars with Escherichia coli. After a few days, they dissected the caterpillars and examined the black capsules that had formed around the E. coli under a light microscope. "We learned a lot about cells, which helps me because we're studying the human body and immune systems in school right now."


For 11-year-old Will, who also attended the 1999 Advanced Bug Camp, inquiry learning is "a lot more fun than just sitting there and listening to someone tell you something that you could be finding out on your own. If you do it on your own you can ask your own questions and then figure out what you'd like to know." Science is only Will's second-favorite subject in school. The sixth-grader isn't into sports (though he is a blue belt in karate) but reads fantasy novels voraciously and knows more about computers than most college students. He even designs his own video games.

For his project, Will and his group members decided that they would like to know what a praying mantis is afraid of—that is, what it interprets as a predator. With elementary education student Davina Darbenzio there to lend suggestions, they conducted an experiment. They hypothesized that a shadow would be enough to scare the praying mantis, and that it would flee whenever it felt threatened. They decided the best way to test their hypothesis would be to set up various habitats (desert and grass) and fake predators (a rectangle, a triangle, and a toy bat). The boys used three controls—plain shadow, a moving piece of transparent glass, and wind. Although the group's hypothesis wasn't supported (fear was indistinguishable from normal behavior, and behavior was independent of habitat), the children discovered this for themselves instead of being told by someone else. In the process they even coined a new term—"Mantisality"—to acknowledge that each mantis displayed its own personality when faced with a potential predator.

The role of the teacher in inquiry learning is a delicate one. The teacher must make sure that the student is grounded in basic facts and has enough background information, but at the same time isn't being told any answers outright. "When the kids wanted to make a bat," says Darbenzio, "I tried to get them to come up with their own way of doing it by asking questions instead of telling them how."

Donnie Rhodes, who worked at the 1999 bug camps, is now teaching elementary school in Altoona, Pennsylvania. With inquiry learning, he says, "The teacher is more or less a resource and provides the spark that you need." Answers for questions aren't doled out; there is no memorization. Instead, the question is either answered by another student or put to the test with an experiment.

girl looks into microscope

Campers get a closer look at their specimens. Bug Camp allowed the kids to use scientific equipment they may not have in their schools and create their own research projects, dissecting, observing, and analyzing insects.

"Inquiry learning is about not going to the textbook or to the Internet to find some absolute answer," says Zembal-Saul. "It's about generating data through experimental design. We want to get past the notion of an absolute answer, because too many people perceive science as a static body of facts. We want them to see the dynamic and tentative nature of science, to understand that sometimes you have to abandon the initial find."

In the inquiry learning system, it's the teacher's responsibility to oversee the students' performance of the experiment. But if the teacher isn't sufficiently trained in experimental science, the system won't work. Lack of experience is still a big problem in many elementary schools today. "When science is taught in elementary schools, it's often one of two extremes: fact-based or 'activity mania,'" notes Zembal-Saul. "What we would like to see is more scientific inquiry in the service of meaningful science learning. We want to see teachers and children doing science the way that scientists do science."

Since he began teaching this year, Rhodes has tried to incorporate inquiry-based education into his own classroom. His goal is to create a "safe classroom," where students are willing to take risks and aren't afraid of being reduced to either a yes or no answer. "The point isn't to get all A's or a 4.0," says Rhodes, "but to create lifelong learning. Kids get fired up at something like Bug Camp. They're not going to go home and watch TV. Hopefully, they'll go home and check things out with the methods they've learned."

It's Friday, the final day of Advanced Bug Camp. Parents and siblings of campers are here to watch them give Power Point presentations on the experiments that they've been performing for the past week. Naturally, the kids are a bit nervous about speaking to a large crowd, and so there are some icebreakers to loosen everyone up. There's a bug buffet, featuring chocolate chirpies: deep-fried crickets covered in chocolate. The chirpies go over big with the kids, who wolf them down in front of their less enthusiastic parents. There are also a few creative activities, including a sort of mini talent show, in which the kids perform skits and songs about bugs. The group that studied the predatory habits of praying mantids carries out a court scene in which a praying mantis is on trial for killing and eating other insects. One of the boys emphatically pronounces the verdict: "Guilty." The mantis is sentenced to a lifetime of poking and probing by small children at Bug Camp. And with that the court is adjourned and everyone gets back in line for another chocolate chirpie.

Kristi Williams and Davina Darbenzio are elementary education majors in the College of Education. Donnie Rhodes graduated in 1999 with a B.S. in education. Carla Zembal-Saul, Ph.D., is assistant professor of science education in the College of Education, 169 Chambers Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0827; cxz12@psu.edu. Heidi Appel, Ph.D., is research associate in entomology; 863-3380; hma2@psu.edu. Maryann Frazier, Ph.D., is senior extension associate in entomology; 865-4621; mxt15@psu.edu. Robinne Weiss is program director for Shaver's Creek Nature Center; 863-2000; rxw23@psu.edu. Leigh Boardman is a graduate student in the College of Education. Pat Friedrichsen is a graduate research training fellow in the College of Education. Writer Jason Weiss will graduate with a B.A. and honors in English in December 2000.

Last Updated September 01, 2000