Experiential Learning in Entomology

Though the term may be new, the concept of experiential learning (learning by doing) has been around since the dawn of complex life. It is true that many animals rely on instinct for basic functions, but for intricate behaviors like hunting, building dams, and even social grooming, animals learn by watching others and following along, a.k.a. by doing. The ability to pass on information and learned behaviors over generations quickly rocketed humans into apex animal position, so it is no wonder that moving away from experiential learning, e.g. towards just “dumping” information from one brain into another through dull lectures, has had less success.

Here’s the rub though, hands-on learning is hard. It demands a much higher level of attention per student from the instructor that forces class sizes to be small. Experiential learning can also be expensive, as students must be allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to make mistakes, which uses up resources. But the outcome of hands-on learning is an undeniably better-prepared cohort of students which knows how to succeed and what to do when they fail.

Several years back I taught a course on Bees and Beekeeping as the instructor of record at Virginia Tech. This course was split into two sections, which could be taken separately or together, one, a lecture three times a week with 70ish students, and the other a lab with only 16 students. The two sections were complementary; the lecture taught students about the complex biology of honey bees (which are like, the whackiest and coolest insects if you ask me), the business of beekeeping and managerial strategies, while the lab actually taught students how to keep bees out in one of Tech’s experimental aviaries. The lecture covered the basics of beekeeping, but not a single one of those students who only took the lecture walked out of that class at all prepared to keep bees. Nothing can prepare someone to be surrounded by tens of thousands of stinging insects, repeatedly knocking into your hood screen and trying to crawl up your pants leg. Being calm around bees is something most people must practice.

FromĀ a swarm demo we did in 2015. Do you think this sort of comfort around bees is instinctual?

Unfortunately, we could not afford to have every student in the lecture also take the lab, it just would not be feasible with the number of instructors (myself and a TA), the number of hives and materials, and the space of the apiary itself. That being said, we are pushing to increase the number of students that we can take out to the apiary, and the lab portion of the course may soon become its own class entirely, with greater support for space and materials.

Finally, I must plug how great Entomology, as a discipline, is for experiential learning. As with bees, there is nothing quite like holding a hissing cockroach or allowing a walking stick to crawl across your face. Insects are amazing, bizarre creatures that must be experienced to be believed, and many of the Entomology courses around the country contain some level of hands-on experience, whether it be collecting in the field or checking local residences for bed bugs (these are often the bravest Entomologists). So, if you are ever looking for examples of experiential learning, Entomology departments are a great place to start!

Friends come in all shapes and sizes!

8 Replies to “Experiential Learning in Entomology”

  1. I think you have a really cool job. This was a very enjoyable post. And though I am a bit scared with our little friends out there, this posts certainly inspires to reach out. I agree with the point on the benefits of hands-on learning and the restriction of the resources. I have certainly learned more in the class where I was supposed to “do” stuff rather than just read. In the case that you mention here, it is almost necessary to go out in the field, however, even in the classroom courses with reality-based examples and projects, it is much easier to learn and realize the difference from the theory.
    I hope you get resources to have a lab-class on its own and I will certainly look for a course in the Entomology department, to understand the experiential learning better.

    1. Hey Akshay,

      I appreciate your comment, and I agree that in the case of beekeeping it is really helpful to learn from experience. That being said, there are a lot of amazing biological and behavioral processes to learn about in honey bees that are more suited to a classroom lecture, so if you (or anyone out there) are nervous about being around bees then the lecture is a great way to learn about them while you build up your courage.

      Hopefully, we’ll get enough resources to host more students out in the apiaries (Tech has three at the writing of this) so students can learn from doing rather than just imagining!


  2. You make a really good argument about the role experience as a source knowledge, and as a learning tool. There is our abstract thinking, and our digital libraries and our stack of papers, and then there is the whole world out there. For the better part of our history, it seems, we relied on hand-on experience as our main pedagogical philosophy. We should not give p easily on that. Thank you for your thoughtful and enjoyable post.

    Kissing bee hives in front of students, now that’s commitment to pedagogy !

    1. Yeah, I think it is good to keep in mind that all of our knowledge means very little if we cannot do whatever that knowledge is meant to impart. The problem arises when you have a huge school like Virginia Tech with classes in the thousands; the potential for hands-on learning decreases significantly. Hopefully, the instructors of those massive courses reach out to their students and encourage them to also take small, intimate, niche classes where they will get those opportunities.

      Thanks for your reply!

  3. Jackson,
    I enjoyed your post as it included a real world perspective and also pointed out some of the logistical challenges of experiential learning. I think that lack of resources is probably an issue across most if not all disciplines. In history for example, students can theoretically do the kind of research that professional historians do, but in practice the scope of their potential topics is limited by what kinds of primary resources are available. Students wanting to research the Civil War are in luck, as Virginia Tech holds extensive collections of primary source material, but students studying world history will have a harder time finding the material that will allow them to accomplish their goals.

  4. Agree with all of the above – especially Arash’s note about kissing a swarm of bees. In your honor, I am featuring a praying mantis friend of the road on the blogging prompt this week.

  5. Wow! I have always wanted to have a hive of my own! But back to Pedagogy, my sister studied horticulture and entomology at CalPoly and she absolutely loved how hands on the majority of her classes were there. She frequently quotes the school motto of “Learn by doing” and now I do too! I absolutely agree with you that it does take more resources in experiential learning and that it also undeniably results in better prepared students. Loved your post!

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