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Science outreach, even in the midst of a pandemic, is fun!

Written by: Karthikeyan Chandrasegaran & Joanna Reinhold

Do warrior beetles have armor? Do millipedes tickle us when we pick them up? Can a female mantis find another camouflaged male Chinese mantis?

Photo credits: Helen Oker

If you wonder who might have asked these curious questions, let me add some context to it. Elementary school children asked these questions during the Hokie BugFest, an initiative by the Department of Entomology and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech to promote the science of entomology by outreach and engagement. In the past years, the BugFest was a one-day event where kids and school children were invited to view and learn about the insects from the Hokie Bug Zoo, which houses the most extensive collection of living bugs in the Eastern Coast of the United States, as well as booths from Virginia Tech labs and other companies that work with arthropods.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the event to shift to a completely virtual mode; an interactive website showcasing slide shows, posters, videos, and activities involving bugs and insects formed the crux of the event. With the pandemic under some control this year, and lessons learned from the past events, Virginia Tech came up with a hybrid model of the BugFest. This initiative involved on-site school visits to showcase live bug exhibits and a virtual event online that kids could engage in at the comfort of their homes. The motivation for hosting Hokie BugFest on a hybrid model is driven by the vision to promote science literacy and make learning more accessible to children across diverse communities.

Photo Credits: Whitney Weaver

We, the members of the Vinauger and Lahondère Labs, led by graduate student Joanna Reinhold, volunteered with other scientists and fellow students to visit elementary schools in the Montgomery and Floyd counties in Virginia. Between September 13 and 22, a team of over 20 volunteers visited 11 schools in the area to talk about bugs and, more specifically, insects. We displayed live exhibits from the Hokie Bug Zoo, including tarantulas, scorpions, vinegaroons, beetles, butterflies, moths, mantises, roaches, and termites. Using the features of these live exhibits, such as color, shape, morphology, etc., we took the opportunity to talk about their habitats and adaptations. These conversations brought the best out of these curious children, and we were flooded with great stories of their bug encounters in the backyards, fields, hike trips, and even Netflix series. These children openly shared their fear of bugs, and some overcame it by handling some of the harmless insects from our display. Every session was wrapped up by talking about careers in entomology, and we gladly hope some of the children we met will pursue science and entomology in some form as they grow up.

Photo Credits: Joanna Reinhold

Now that the school visits are over, Hokie BugFest has transitioned to a virtual mode starting October 2. From our labs, we are showcasing the good and bad sides of mosquitoes. If you wonder how mosquitoes can ever be good, please do check this link out! The website has an outstanding collection of information on various bugs and will be live until December 31.

Overall, the response to this hybrid model has been overwhelming, and we believe there will be more such events in the future to engage safely with the community!

Volunteers from the Vinauger and Lahondère Labs: Nicole Wynne, Joanna Reinhold, Helen Oker, and Karthikeyan Chandrasegaran.

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