Crusading for invertebrates: effective outreach in schools

16 April 2014 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Insects, Outreach

Imagine going into schools with live insects and spiders: it becomes about controlling the excitement, dispelling fear and culturing curiosity. This is what Minibeast Mayhem does every day!

Sally-Ann Spence is known in the Twitterverse as “Minibeast Mayhem”, an educational outreach program for schools in the UK. I have been incredibly impressed with her program, and based on what I read and see on Twitter, she is an extremely gifted and successful crusader for invertebrates. Whether it’s stick-insects or spiders, Sally-Ann is helping in extremely meaningful ways: she is bringing high quality workshops into schools, and culturing curiosity about the most amazing animals on the planet.

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I was thrilled that Sally-Ann was willing to answer a few questions about her workshops, and about how she views the interaction between kids, education and entomology. Her answers are extremely insightful, interesting and important and can hopefully inspire more people to follow her path. Here’s our discussion:

Chris Buddle: What inspired you to start your outreach program in schools?

Minibeast Mayhem: I already had 18 years of outreach experience before I started Minibeast Mayhem and it seemed a natural progression for me. My natural disposition towards invertebrates made me very aware of where they appeared in our children's learning and I was quite concerned that 95% all animal species did not get a 'fair share' of the science curriculum in my eyes. I began to study the reactions to inverts in the media and amongst the public at large. There seemed to be an unfeasibly large PR mountain to climb but I believe education is the only way to tackle it, so I set up Minibeast Mayhem and decided to start initially doing educational workshops with primary age children. Now I do workshops from preschoolers to adults. I absolutely love working with people, especially with children, and I am passionate about crusading for invertebrates.

CB: Why do you feel it's important to bring invertebrates into schools in the form of hands-on workshops? 

MM: I believe in practical learning especially when trying to consolidate understanding across an entire cohort of various abilities. It’s easy to say insects breathe through holes called spiracles located on their bodies, it is another thing entirely for the pupils to actually see them first hand. Using larger specimens enables pupils to view the various anatomical features as they walk on their own hand and at the same time captivating them in a way that a diagram or photograph never will. I also believe its extremely important the pupils feel an empathy and register the fact that the insect is another living entity. Personally I strongly feel that to break down fear barriers and to overcome negative invertebrate preconceptions, you need controlled, safe and confidence giving interaction.

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CB: Developing and delivering workshops is surely an immense amount of work, from marketing, to materials and supplies, to dealing with school boards. Can you tell me about what it takes to do these workshops

MM: I wanted seriously science based invertebrate educational workshops as a resource to support classroom learning and the whole idea was for Minibeast Mayhem to be an educational initiative. I’ve developed a series of workshops these are regularity tweaked and are flexible. It's about engaging pupils so if discussion goes in another direction I will explore that with them. I breed most of my invertebrates at home and have a good relationship with several fantastic museums as well as a knowledgeable invertebrate breeder. For me it’s about fact finding, sourcing the correct information and increasing my own knowledge that's most important. Although I developed a website and leaflets, the best marketing has been word of mouth in the teaching community. It has been a huge success but it was ultimately through the marketing of my subject and not the subject matter itself that has got me the bookings. The biggest challenge has been fear and distance. Very often it is the teachers who show the most fear, and for that reason, I don’t take spiders or scorpions into schools initially. It’s important to reduce fear as much as possible on the booking form. I am also very particular about the 'safeness' of any invertebrate I take in, have public liability insurance, safeguarding checks, transport licenses and teaching qualifications. My biggest success is that my bookings are growing every year with a high level of repeat bookings. I am now in schools and able to market science week workshops in secondary schools working with their biology departments. I am getting invertebrates into the curriculum whereas before they were glossed over by those teachers feeling more comfortable with vertebrates.

CB: What are some of the most common questions’ that are asked by the audiences in your workshops?

MM: The questions vary hugely according to the age groups obviously but the most common is probably "do they breathe?" followed closely by "will it hurt me?". On the whole they are completely confused by pupa, chrysalis and cocoon. Most are shocked to learn invertebrates do not have bones in their bodies and that it is not only butterflies that go through complete metamorphosis, although some are convince moths are 'baby butterflies'. The younger children are invariably confused by the fact that stick insects and leaf insects are not actual leaves and sticks. Older pupils tend to focus on their ecosystem impacts and are amazed at their importance to the world they live in. Slugs are viewed as snails who have lost their shells and they are surprised to learn imago beetles are the adult as are flies. A rule of thumb is under 10's its poo based, under 15's its defence mechanisms, under 20's its ecosystems services.

CB: What is your longer-term goal or objective?

MM: I am absolutely, totally, and completely fascinated by invertebrates. The fact that they should be so poorly represented in our National Curriculum and have such horrendous PR was a challenge and something I felt needed addressing. Our very existence depends on them so to almost disregard them is extraordinary. I chose to educate and 'market' invertebrates to school pupils and the general public in a positive way. As an invertebrate PR force I felt we need to get more savvy and I am hopeful for the future as I strongly feel with more upbeat outreach we can make a difference to public preconceptions and understanding. The bottom line is Minibeast Mayhem is a business and has to make money in order for me to be able to continue but my passion for my subject is immense and I am driven by the need to raise awareness for the biggest animal group on our planet.

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CB: What do you ‘see’ in classrooms with respect to how kids are exposed to nature and biodiversity?

MM: Children can be engaged on any subject if it’s delivered in a positive way. Many of the pupils I work with come from very urban backgrounds and in some cases do not have anything other than asphalt to play on in their playground. They are 'removed' if you will, from nature. When I take live creatures into a classroom it provokes many associated reactions: excitement, fear and curiosity. The trick is to control the excitement, dispel the fear and culture the curiosity. Children are naturally curious and that curiosity thrives when they are introduced to something new. My observations are that the live insects certainly captivate the pupils and spark an interest. Many will go on to loose that spark but there will always be some that don't. It’s a case of making sure they are exposed to it in the first place. When a pupil knows I'm visiting their school and brings in something they have found I always make an effort to praise and encourage that individual. It might be a moment in my life but a life moment in theirs. Pupils that's show a true keenness for the subject I send home with a Amateur Entomologists Society's Bug Club pack so they can further their interest. There is definitely an underlying interest in nature and biodiversity but in these situations it does need a catalyst to further it. Parents have a huge influence and I can tell instantly which parents have encouraged their children. I see a variety of interests from pupils but have found that if I get my delivery right I can make a difference to their interest before and after. It is true though that a large majority of pupils I work with are shockingly unaware of invertebrates but then that's why I am doing what I do.

A big thanks to Sally-Ann for answering my questions in such detail, and for doing such amazing work. Keep it up!  You can follow her on twitter, or check out her website.


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