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.

grad students sitting on stone steps inside a dorm

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

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) 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:

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:


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!

Collaborative, open access course materials

It’s time to follow up on my post last month, in which I established a starting point for our collaborative course on insect biodiversity and evolution. We’ve had extensive back and forth here, about how to establish a robust, user-friendly environment for contributing edits and content to course materials. We settled on GitHub:

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.31.10 AM

And we’ve started migrating materials there. Probably the best place to start if you’re interested in learning more about the project or want to contribute your own materials is our wiki:

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.41.08 AM

We’re drafting some help documents this week that will guide one through the process of submitting issues, downloading (cloning) files, submitting changes, etc.

Insect Biodiversity and Evolution revolution

Last fall I gave a talk at the ESA annual meeting (see blog post about it) about re-envisioning our course on insect biodiversity and evolution (currently called, weirdly enough, Insect Biodiversity and Evolution (ENT432)). We’re in week five of the “revolution”, and it’s time to start being a bit more public about our efforts. That was, after all, the whole point of the talk I gave at ESA.

Redesigning a course is a complex undertaking, especially when we’re building on eight years of teaching history and bits and pieces of content from various colleagues. Hence we chose to start more or less from scratch, breaking the course down into modules that could be worked on in parallel:

  1.  Introduction – mostly logistics but also addresses the following questions: What are arthropods? What is systematics and why is it relevant?
  2. Arthropod morphology – lays the groundwork for understanding adaptations, evolution, and diagnosis
  3. Systematics and Evolution – basics of evolution (natural selection, adaptation, Hox genes), history of classification and phylogenetics (Aristotle to Hennig and beyond); puts our knowledge into context
  4. Early arthropods, fossils, terrestrialization – fossilization processes, important arthropod fossils, adaptations to the challenges of terrestrial environments; where did arthropods come from?
  5. Outgroups – covers non-insect arthropods and the likely sister to Arthropoda, Onychophora [see drafts of slideshow and handout]
  6. Non-pterygote hexapods – this and the rest are self-explanatory
  7. Palaeoptera
  8. Polyneoptera
  9. Acercaria
  10. Hymenoptera
  11. Neuropterida
  12. Coleoptera, Strepsiptera
  13. Antliophora
  14. Amphiesmenoptera
  15. Natural history collections (could/should be done as one of the first modules)

Additionally, we’ve identified a set of cool stories, bro (20+ min, could involve a paper and discussion) that are highly relevant and important for students training to become professional entomologists to know:

  • origin of wings
  • holometabolous development
  • leaf mining/herbivory strategies
  • galls/galling
  • mimicry/aposematism
  • sound production – percussion (Plecoptera), stridulation (Hemiptera: Heteroptera, Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, others), tymbals (Cicadamorpha), forced air (Blattodea)
  • sexual selection
  • fighting/weapons – or include in sexual selection? 
  • sociality – haplodiploidy, other conditions that contribute to rise of eusociality
  • nest architecture
  • myrmecophily – tie in with nest architecture?
  • symbioses – seems too diverse for one long discussion, maybe better as series of short vignettes (one on Blattabacterium, one on polydnaviruses, another on yeasts in hemipterans, etc.)
  • aquatic adaptations (breathing, swimming) – lentic, lotic, boundary layer, plastron breathing, air straps, hydrofuge hairs, semiaquatic, surface skimming
  • silk – which glands produce it, chemical composition, uses

And short vignettes (5–10 min, not much discussion maybe):

  • camouflage
  • pheromones
  • migration
  • wing coupling
  • cryophily
  • relicts
  • sucking mouth
  • xylophagy
  • resilin, jumping
  • tympana
  • mating position
  • foveation
  • parasitoidism
  • parasitism
  • predation

That could/should be peppered throughout the modules and revisited in multiple modules as necessary.

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“Outgroups” handout, in development at Overleaf

We’re still getting organized about how to engage colleagues and share emerging content. At the moment we use Google Slides for the lecture slideshows (slide example) and Overleaf for handouts (above; see also handout example). Our rules are: (1) maximize note-taking potential where possible, i.e., minimize text and use images to stimulate discussion, (2) use CC BY or CC0 images where possible (avoid copyrighted images unless we have permission that we can document and/or we are using them in the spirit of fair use), (3) document all content, including image source(s), content source(s), and dates of retrieval, (4) develop content in a way that maximizes safe re-use.

Any thoughts? What have we missed? Expect more frequent engagement (hopefully weekly) as this project unfolds! We’ll tag ’em, so that they can be browsed conveniently: InsectSystematics.

Our 2015 ECN/ESA talks

I gotta say that I am really proud of the talks my lab gave at this year’s Entomological Collections Network and Entomological Society of America meetings. You can find the slides below:

Emily Sandall et al. (2015) Digitization of the Beatty Odonata Collection at the Frost Entomological Museum (PSUC): the terrain of ecological niche modeling. ECN annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1602235 (Sandall et al. program link)

Kyle Burks (2015) Revision of Dendrocerus (Hymenoptera, Megaspilidae): Deciphering an esoteric taxon through an integrative approach. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1603028

Carolyn Trietsch (2015) Conostigmus spp. (Hymenoptera: Megaspilidae) of the Holarctic. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1609733

István Mikó and Andrew R. Deans (2015) Insect integument: The link between insect taxonomy and evolutionary developmental biology. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1606223

I also gave my own talk, in which I summarized our experiences with a recent morphology course we offered: Know your insect (ENT 530):

Andrew R. Deans and István Mikó (2015) Know your insects! New approaches to teaching insect morphology and systematics. ESA annual meeting 2015. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1609692

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It could’ve (should’ve?) been one of the worst talk experiences I have ever had—crackly voice, blistering headache, sore throat, cough of death—except that I was overwhelmed by the massive interest people seemed to have in the topic. The room was completely filled, with every square centimeter of floor space covered by entomologists and a huge overflow out into the hallway. I couldn’t believe it! And, to top it off, there was a massive line afterwards to talk to me about morphology course ideas.

Based on these interactions, as well as some incredible talks by my colleagues (I’m looking at you, Brian Wiegmann), I’m now more motivated than ever to pursue some of the ideas we have for training the next generation of entomologists in core entomological knowledge. Watch this space for a deeper explanation, updates about collaboratively-developed educational materials, and news of an upcoming morphology workshop for graduate students.

Thank you all for making ECN and ESA such vibrant, accepting, and exciting communities!

the tragedy of orphaned insect collections

A funny thing happens when you evaluate the condition of insect specimens in a 24-drawer cabinet by only glancing at 2–3 drawers in the middle – you vastly underestimate the abomination that lies in the lower drawers. I haven’t done the research (nor the lit search) to say this definitively, but I bet any experienced collection manager would tell you that dermestids are more prevalent in drawers near the floor. Either that or they prefer leps über alles. Witness:

dermestid damage

Dermestid-damaged specimens in drawers close to the floor.

Wow. Now multiply that by several drawers (many hundreds of specimens). “You’re gonna hafta nuke it from orbit” said one of my colleagues. In some of those drawers one could see live dermestid larvae scurrying like rats, several per unit tray.

Let’s step back.

Have you ever made an insect collection? The process is chronophagous, for sure, yet immensely rewarding. Time in the field (+ gas $, which isn’t cheap) + time sorting + time mounting (+ pinning resources, which aren’t cheap) + time making labels + time labeling specimens + time determining specimens + time adding yet more labels + time curating, etc. Read Gimmel & Ferro (2010), who nicely summarize the intensity of building a collection. It’s a metric sh!t-ton of work, and people are rightfully proud of the accomplishment afterwards. They deserve better than to have their intellectual investment end like this:

trashed specimens

Specimens ready for the dumpster.

And biodiversity researchers deserve better as well. I discarded material (in some cases only the labels remained) from Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Texas, Arizona, as well as Pennsylvania, from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and every decade until the 2000s. Some of these specimens had host plant or host insect data (even host remains). What a waste. What a preventable tragedy. This situation is exactly why I don’t allow students to keep their insect collections, and it should never happen to those students who donate their material to museum.

So, what about my plan to salvage specimens for the teaching collection? Several drawers, especially near the top of the cabinets, were loaded with (apparently) untainted gems, including families we didn’t have represented in the teaching collection (Bittacidae) or which were underrepresented (Phoridae). There were also some crazy awesome tropical species – showy, colorful, metallic, large … some great surprises. This was probably this biggest surprise, though:

bird egg collection

Bird egg collection.

Still deciding its fate. Any ideas?

course lab madness

It’s been a busy summer, what with a new baby, a new house, a new job … and an impending new class. And now it’s time to batten down the lab for a wild fall semester. My three ambitious goals for the hopefully near future:

  1. Migrate all the content of my lab handouts from MS Word to LaTeX. Part of this process will be to replace all unattributed images (my bad) with my own figures or Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) images. The reasoning behind this move is probably evident (hint: I want to share them confidently and broadly), but I’ll write a more detailed post about the process later. I’m pretty much still a TeX n00b, though, so don’t expect that post in the immediate future.
  2. Organize our collecting gear and preparation supplies. What kind of self-respecting insect museum has more Sherman small mammal traps (>50!) than insect pins (0)?! We do, that’s who. I’ve ordered a bunch of things (props to my boss for the support) and am slowly overcoming the shock and awe of our supply closet’s entropic, depleted condition. On the plus side, we’re rigged to the nines with aquatic sampling gear and have enough slides and coverslips to mount every aphid and louse in Pennsylvania.
  3. The real reason I write this post, though, is that I have to substantially revamp the teaching collection. Headhouse 3 serves as the setting for the ENT497B labs and as the clearing house for old collections from defunct classes. The resulting morass obscures the specimens’ provenance (though several people have said “assume they’re yours”) and breeds dermestids:
dermestid damage

A heavily damaged butterfly from one of the scattered, orphaned collections in our building.

So, what’s to be done with these scattered teaching collections? I’m conflicted. The official teaching collection for my course is definitely deficient, for many taxa. And the Frost Museum’s research collection (which is protected from pests and separate from the teaching materials) is OFF LIMITS for teaching – absolutely, under no circumstances will we pilfer research material for teaching.

Time is short, so I’m actually toying with the idea of folding actively infested specimens* in with my pristine (but beggard) teaching collection. The rub is that I won’t be able to fully treat this chimeric collection until probably late in the semester. Maybe it’s not a big deal, as dermestids seem to be pretty slow destroyers. This idea does defy common sense, though, and will probably cause a great disturbance in the collective curator’s Force. Will I recover from this fiasco?

* I haven’t confirmed this yet. Maybe the dermestids are all dead. UPDATE: (21 Aug 2012 4:00pm) There are indeed many live dermestids in those drawers of horrors. Sigh.