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How to Organize a Junior Bug Blitz

By Jonathan Carpenter

Photographs by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography) and Paul Nolte

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will only understand what we are taught.” — Baba Dioum, 1968

This quote, whether we have learned it or not, represents an integral concept in the realm of conservation: Teach to Know to Care to Protect. The concept is abundant in the world of outdoor educators.

So, my name is Jonathan Carpenter (JC). Of all things to do for a living, I do BioBlitzes. Also, I study the BioBlitz as a method. My work has taught me that the BioBlitz essentially has four facets: Science, Education, Community and, in some cases, Competition. I believe that it’s important to look at the BioBlitz as having these facets because to some extent the facets are antagonistic – they cannot all be maximized simultaneously without careful effort. Therefore, if you know what your goals are for the biodiversity event you can focus on these facets to get the results you are seeking.

I often hear similar stories from BioBlitz event organizers and outdoor educators about various angles of this problem. For example, and this should get me directly to the point: A bunch of kids will be showing up at the BioBlitz, let’s say a hundred. Should we focus on getting lots of good data, or should we put together a program that allows us to actually work with these kids? How could we get good data, anyway? These are typical questions and should exemplify what I mean by “antagonistic”. After all, with or without consulting Baba Dioum’s resonant quote, what is more important…a chunk of data or a bunch of kids exploring and discovering the outdoors?

Leaving out “Community” and “Competition” for now, as these facets generally have less of a role in doing BioBlitzes with kids, here is a somewhat simple method that I came up with to engage and enthrall youth while simultaneously generating abundant, robust data. Specifically this system allows for the “Education” efforts to add to the “Science” that comes out the event.

Education

Kids are naturalists. As our brains are constantly growing and developing during adolescence, we naturally fuel our mental growth through discovery and experimentation. I have often seen programs during BioBlitzes that focus on taking the kids around to different “stations” where they listen to a short talk, do an exercise, and then move on to the next station.

I say again, kids ARE naturalists! So let the biodiversity be the star of the show! Some kids like facts; many do not care on that level. What almost everyone likes, and indeed is infectious, is copious amounts of enthusiasm. So, you don’t have to know much about nature to interpret it to youth if the goal is to make them care about nature; all you need is intense enthusiasm.

“Look how long this cricket’s antennae are”, or “Check out those mouthparts, this critter has power”, or “Wow, the colors appear to be changing as I turn this butterfly” are some ways to inspire enthusiasm. In these cases, no previous specific knowledge played into the interpretation…but, the students will be looking at your specimen, or their specimen. And that should be the point!

The name of the specimen, the collected natural history knowledge about it, can come later. If a person has little experience with exploring the natural world, the science of Ecology and Biodiversity might not be the best primer. In my experience, the most important thing to do for an educator/interpreter who has but a brief time to get youth into the forest and then back on the bus is this: Let Them BE Naturalists! Nature (Ecology) is complicated and difficult to observe. Biodiversity is tangible. It is observable at close range. It can be observed in the moment. Tangibility, Observability, Instant Gratification, these are fantastic characteristics for an educator when working with Youth – really any age demographic, but especially with Youth.

“Young explorers from Cordova Middle School in Memphis TN discovering local biodiversity at every turn” Photo by: Paul Nolte
Young explorers from Cordova Middle School in Memphis TN discovering local biodiversity at every turn.
Photo by: Paul Nolte

If the BioBlitz is set up to have stations and kids rotating through them, it will be relatively easy to have an “exploration station” fill one of the station roles. This is the station where they explore the local biodiversity by exercising their powers of observation. However, if the kids will be at the blitz for several hours and they are only there for the exploration stuff, the main consideration then becomes making sure that there are enough adults per child. It differs geographically, but the typical number is 1 adult for every 10 youth, which includes the Enthusiast leaders as adults. Also, if there is a large group of kids, the group can be split into smaller groups of no more than 20. If there are 100 students, then we need at least 5 nature enthusists, and at least 5 other adults, and of course, a First Aid kit and plan. This is one approach, but there are many varieties on this theme.

A little trick I’ve picked up: If you, the interpreter, are looking at something intently and with enthusiasm, everyone around will also look intently at what you are looking at. If you then talk to the people around you with intent and enthusiasm while keeping your eyes on the subject, let’s say a ladybird beetle in a vial, then hold out the vial to be held by the surrounding people…almost all of them reach to grab the vial. As they say – Eyes on the Prize!

Science

Why focus on “bugs”?

“Bugs’” or more specifically Invertebrates (Inverts, no backbone), are amazingly diverse, super weird in a cool way, and abundant. They are everywhere and can often be easily caught and then stored in small containers. The geography of invertebrates is largely still being unraveled, giving young explorers a real opportunity to contribute to the science of the inverts they find! I call bugs the “Mini Robot Monsters”.

VIALS: Actually any clear container will work, even sealable sandwich bags. Down to the basics, collecting containers are the only required equipment for this part of the event. The way I typically do it is pretty simple; I set it up a kind of game. I give each kid 3 vials and a few rules.

  • Rule 1: Put only one invertebrate in each vial. This teaches one of the most important taxonomic divisions of the animal kingdom – some animals have backbones, most do not.
  • Rule 2: Compare what you (the youth) have collected to the other organisms collected by your group. If you think you have collected the same as someone else, let one of the critters go and get something else. It’s about team effort. This is the main premise for understanding biodiversity – see it for yourself.
  • Rule 3: If you find something that you think is more interesting than something you already have, but you have nowhere to put it, replace something you have with the critter you are more excited about. Alternately, if there are plenty of containers, some could be brought along into the field and distributed by the leader(s) as needed.

WARNING: Do remind all participants about being wary of snakes, spiders, poison ivy relatives, and fuzzy caterpillars.

If all rules are followed, everyone will definitely fill their containers. Therefore, a group of 10 kids should bring back 30 different things. In all honesty, this can be accomplished in about a half hour. So it works well as a short “exploration station” but can easily be augmented for larger groups of kids and longer periods of time simply by having more containers. If there will be 100 kids participating, expect 300 specimens at the end of the event.

“Broadly sorting the specimens as the youth return from forays” Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography)
Broadly sorting the specimens as the youth return from forays.
Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography)
“a quick bit of organizing gets the specimens streamlined and ready for rapid, photographic processing” Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography)
A quick bit of organizing gets the specimens streamlined and ready for rapid, photographic processing.
Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography)

PROCESSING DATA: Crunch time! At this point the kids have gone home or back to school and you, the citizen scientist, are left with all the vials. Or, we often set up this part of the process as a station and begin working the data before the kids leave. This stage of the process requires only one camera and a cooler with ice. For the most part, invertebrates are ectothermic, meaning that their internal temperature is approximate to the surrounding environmental temperature. Cool them down = slow them down. After being chilled for a few minutes the living specimens can be photographed with significantly less risk of them flying away or scurrying off as soon as the container is opened. Taking the pics with a white background does a fine job of bringing out the details of the organism. Even a white paper plate will work in a pinch.

Once all the photos are taken, release the “bugs” back into their wild world. The next step is crucial…get the photos online. The program iNaturalist.org is my database of choice. This program allows for documentation of all types of living species, from micro-organisms to whales. If you do not know what the organism is, that’s fine. There are many users of the iNaturalist program that curate the database by voluntarily adding identifications to your observations. I should briefly mention here that iNaturalist is much more than an incredible, open-source data base;  it also functions as both an elaborate social network and education platform.

There it is, The Junior Bug Blitz! You’ve engaged youth by teaching purely of observation and discovery while documenting an elaborate set of “bug” data.

 5th Grade citizen-scientists from Caton’s Chapel Elementary School at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.” Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography). Click on image to enlarge.
5th Grade citizen-scientists from Caton’s Chapel Elementary School at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Photo by: Kevin FitzPatrick (All Species Photography). Click on image to enlarge.

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