Reflections on teaching insect biodiversity

Last semester I taught my Insect Biodiversity and Evolution course in a slightly new way, and now that it’s over I have a chance to revisit the experience and read my student evaluations. Overall I have to say that I am quite happy! I do see lots of room for improvements, of course, but first a little context …

Three ongoing situations drove me to revamp the course: (1) I get a lot of requests from colleagues to share my teaching materials, and I often found myself uncomfortable with their state (not always clear, sometimes with images of questionable provenance); (2) so many TAs have worked on the materials (often improving, sometimes meddling) that they lost some cohesion; (3) the collection exercise was never quite right, requiring so many specimens/taxa that the resulting product was often not usable for research or teaching (poor preps, sloppy labels, … rushed work).

My goal was to rebuild the course, almost from the ground up, and avail the new materials in such a way that they could be iteratively improved, commented on, and used by anyone. See the results at our GitHub repo. I hoped to release the new materials under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), to maximize peoples’ ability to refine the materials. I think it’ll be a long time before that can really happen, as many of the images I used are licensed in a way that doesn’t allow commercial use or derivatives.

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The ENT 432 crew, at Raven’s Roost at Powdermill Nature Reserve — lots of smiles! September 2016. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Hillary Morin https://flic.kr/p/LPuPrV

What went wrong 😦

Overall I was happy with the course, but several elements could be improved. Here are three that come to mind, but you can read more in our issues feed:

  1. I’ll probably get rid of the requirement that lab notebooks be graded. Honestly I forgot about that line in the grading rubric (oops!), and so everyone got 100/100. They probably deserved that grade, though. These students answered all of our lab questions, many of which didn’t have “right” answers and were not easy. For example, we asked students to hypothesize the function(s) of the elaborate surface sculpturing one can see in Tingidae (see photo below and question 9-13 in the handout). I don’t know the answer if there is one!
  2. Students need more guidance regarding how to take field notes – or at least what I expected from them for this aspect of the Discover Your Inner Darwin exercise – and iterative examination of their notes. Their field notebooks were quite inconsistent in their detail.
  3. I need to lecture (even) less and bring back required readings that are discussed as a group. I jettisoned this element in order to bring the work load more in line with what Penn State recommends for a 4-credit course (about 160–180 hours of work in a semester). Time to rework the load again. I missed the readings!
top of a lace bug, whose surface is elaborately sculptured like lattice work

Amazing photo of a lace bug (Hemiptera: Tingidae), by Gilles San Martin (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9hv9Nj. Why is their cuticle so elaborately sculptured? I don’t know! And my students didn’t seem comfortable with that.

What went right 😀

I definitely feel like this course is morphing into one that is both effective and fun. Although imperfect, it was easily my best semester as an instructor. Highlights for me:

  1. The observation component of the natural history exercise was really fun for me to witness and read about, and most students found it incredibly rewarding. With more direction from me, and maybe multiple iterations per semester, it could emerge as a highlight for students and an avenue for future research.
  2. The collection is also heading in the right direction. Each one was relatively small but sufficiently diverse, and the specimen preps were almost immaculate. Clearly a lot of time and care was put into these collections!
  3. The blog post exercise was also good fun, and it was an opportunity for students to dig deeper into observations and subjects that inspired them.
  4. The collections resulted in real data that can be used for research! Each student submitted his/her data as Darwin Core Archives, which are basically ready to share through GBIF (I want to doublecheck them first!) With a little help from GBIF, I think we can make this element almost as compelling as the collection.

Changes and opportunities

I’ve discussed one possible change with three semesters of students now, and I feel confident now that it’s an idea worth pursuing: I’d love to partner with a likeminded professor at a university relatively close to ours, say within a 6-hour drive of Penn State, for a combined field trip. We mix our students into teams that collect, prep, cook, and learn together … It could be fun! Another possible change to my course could disrupt the potential for any partnerships – a move to the spring semester.

More on that later!

Originally posted on the Frost Curators’ blog: https://sites.psu.edu/frost/2017/01/11/reflections-on-teaching-insect-biodiversity/

Bringing the George H. and Alice F. Beatty Odonata collection into the digital age – our latest publication

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George and Alice Beatty observing odonates. Photo (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/yqg41q

Sandall, E. L. (2016) Bringing the George H. and Alice F. Beatty Odonata collection into the digital age. Argia 28(4): 33–34 (preprint – DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.4490552.v1)

Abstract.—A collection of over 60,000 odonate specimens can tell many stories. It can show the successful preservation of dragonflies and damselflies, as well as the differences in prey and habitat associations between taxa. The field notes can share observations and collecting details with those who may have never seen a particular species in the field. A collection of this size can also demonstrate the importance of natural history museums and their contents, enabling biodiversity research decades later. Of particular interest is the mobility of collections in the digital age, as evidenced through the U.S. NSF’s investment in Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) grants, liberating natural history data on which novel research can be conducted. Over the past two years, I have worked with the collection of George H. and Alice F. Beatty at the Frost Entomological Museum at Penn State University in order to digitize the specimens in the collection, catalog them, and find ways to use their data through an NSF Thematic Collections Network (TCN) grant for digitization.

New Dryocosmus Giraud species – our latest open access publication

When it rains it pours. Here’s the latest open access publication, from István, former lab member Szabina Schwéger, and their colleagues!

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Galls of Dryocosmus taitungensis. Photo by C.-T. Tang. Source: 10.3897/jhr.53.9890

Tang C-T, Mikó I, Nicholls JA, Schwéger S, Yang M-M, Stone GN, Sinclair F, Bozsó M, Melika G, Pénzes Z (2016) New Dryocosmus Giraud species associated with Cyclobalanopsis and non-Quercus host plants from the Eastern Palaearctic (Hymenoptera, Cynipidae, Cynipini). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 53: 77-162. DOI: 10.3897/jhr.53.9890

Abstract.—Our knowledge about gall wasps associated with the diverse East Asian oaks, Castanopsis and Cyclobalanopsis, is limited due to the lack of extensive field studies. Here, we describe twelve new oak gall wasp species, Dryocosmus cannoni Schwéger & Tang, D. caputgrusi Tang & Schwéger, D. crinitus Schwéger & Tang, D. harrisonae Melika & Tang, D. hearni Melika &Tang, D. hualieni Schwéger & Tang, D. konradi Tang & Melika, D. liyingi Melika & Tang, D. moriius Tang & Melika, D. quadripetiolus Schwéger & Tang, D. salicinai Schwéger & Tang, and D. taitungensis Tang & Melika, from Taiwan and mainland China. Seven newly described species induce galls on Quercus subgenus Cyclobalanopsis and five on other Fagaceae genus, Castanopsis. All of the new species concepts are supported by morphological and molecular data. We provide descriptions, diagnoses, host associations for the new species and an illustrated identification key to Eastern Palaearctic Dryocosmus species. We represent natural language phenotypes in a semantic format supported by biomedical ontologies to increase the accessibility of morphological data.

Pteroceraphron Dessart new to the USA – our latest open access publication

Here’s another product of our NSF ARTS grant, albeit not quite as major as our last publication! P.S. We love Biodiversity Data Journal and Pensoft’s ARPHA Writing Tool!

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Mikó I, Masner L, Deans A (2016) Pteroceraphron Dessart new to the USA (Hymenoptera: Ceraphronoidea). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e9261. DOI: 10.3897/BDJ.4.e9261

Background.—Pteroceraphron is a monotypic genus that can be recognized by its unique, lanceolate wing shape. Until now the only described species, Pteroceraphron mirabilipennis Dessart 1981, was known only from specimens collected in Canada.

New information.—Here, for the first time, we report Pteroceraphron mirabilipennis Dessart 1981 specimens collected in the USA. We also provide an extended diagnosis.

Malagasy Conostigmus – our latest open access publication

Our most recent ARTS product is a doozy. Check it out! Also, we love PeerJ!

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Mikó I, Trietsch C, Sandall EL, Yoder MJ, Hines H, Deans AR. (2016) Malagasy Conostigmus (Hymenoptera: Ceraphronoidea) and the secret of scutes. PeerJ 4: e2682 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2682

Abstract.—We revise the genus Conostigmus Dahlbom 1858 occurring in Madagascar, based on data from more specimens than were examined for the latest world revision of the genus. Our results yield new information about intraspecific variability and the nature of the atypical latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG) observed in Ceraphronoidea. We also investigate cellular processes that underlie body size polyphenism, by utilizing the correspondence between epidermal cells and scutes, polygonal units of leather-like microsculpture. Our results reveal that body size polyphenism in Megaspilidae is most likely related to cell number and not cell size variation, and that cell size differs between epithelial fields of the head and that of the mesosoma. Three species, Conostigmus ballescoracas Dessart, 1997, C. babaiax Dessart, 1996 and C. longulus Dessart, 1997, are redescribed. Females of C. longulus are described for the first time, as are nine new species: C. bucephalus Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. clavatus Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. fianarantsoaensis Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. lucidus Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. macrocupula, Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. madagascariensis Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. missyhazenae Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., C. pseudobabaiax Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov., and C. toliaraensis Mikó and Trietsch sp. nov. A fully illustrated identification key for Malagasy Conostigmus species and a Web Ontology Language (OWL) representation of the taxonomic treatment, including specimen data, nomenclature, and phenotype descriptions, in both natural and formal languages, are provided.

Revision of Dvivarnus – István’s latest open access publication

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Talamas EJ, Mikó I, Copeland RS (2016) Revision of Dvivarnus (Scelionidae, Teleasinae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 49: 1–23. doi: 10.3897/JHR.49.7714

Abstract.—Two new species, Dvivarnus elektrolythron Talamas & Mikó, sp. n. and D. mikuki Talamas & Mikó, sp. n. are described. The genus is redescribed and a key is provided to separate Dvivarnus from other groups in Teleasinae with mesoscutellar spines.

Updates and thoughts on course materials

As I posted before (in February and again in March), we’re in the midst of reinventing our upper level course on insect biodiversity and evolution. Our long term mission has always been to make these materials available broadly, under a license with few restrictions (probably CC BY). We’ve started pushing materials to our GitHub repo, so that people can clone, use, edit, add, push, etc.—a process that I expect to be slow—and the time seems right for an update.

Over the last month or so we spent about 60 hours on what was the least developed handout: Amphiesmenoptera. I always teach this taxon at the end of the course, and by then we are usually running out of steam. We removed all uncredited images and replaced them with our own photos, CC-licensed photos from Flickr, and out-of-copyright illustrations from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). All are referenced and linked back to their sources. See Figure 13 in the Amphiesmenoptera handout, for example:

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The process is definitely taking longer than I anticipated, although this handout needed way more work than most. We want each handout to represent a unit of knowledge, in this case amphiesmenopteran diversity, evolution, adaptations, diagnostic characters, and natural history. The lab and lecture components will likely be fused in future iterations of the course: we introduce the focal taxa, discuss some higher-level adaptations and things to watch for when looking at specimens in lab, then we break to look at specimens, using the handout as a guide. There will be many opportunities to take breaks and discuss what we’ve found (mini lectures mixed in with lab). At the end we answer some big picture questions as a group.

Some other thoughts, in random list form:

  • The BHL is an incredible resource. We will be using it more in other handouts! I will likely edit the .bst file to render linked DOI and URIs, so that readers can see the source in one click from the PDF.
  • We need to move away from using content whose license is not controlled by my lab group or our collaborators. Image source and permissions management gets increasingly difficult in rapidly evolving, image-rich content. This situation gave us ideas for student exercises involving camera phones and microscopy. More on that later.
  • GitHub and Overleaf are awesome tools, with great synergy, but I wish there was a seamless way to push changes made in Overleaf to our GitHub repo. This post gets me halfway there … but I am (arguably too) reliant on Overleaf as my primary LaTeX editor.
  • We’re looking for more graded exercise ideas if you have any. I am especially interested in alternatives to collection making. Would you let a student curate the research collection for credit?

My next move, which might happen right now, is to push the remaining handouts to GitHub. Onwards!