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Spring 2001 Vol. 1 No. 1

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Jump-starting an Appreciation for Science


Photo by Andrew Pope As an entomologist who is a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of science literacy, I've made it a point never to refuse an invitation from the community to speak about insects. Over the past 20 years, I've given presentations for school groups ranging from preschool to college, nature centers, day camps, Brownie and Cub Scout troops, garden clubs, herb societies, and science teachers associations. Perhaps more surprisingly, I've even managed to work insects into talks before groups like ladies' clubs, medical societies, and nursing homes. The key to success is to relate whatever you'd like to say to something that resonates with your audience.

Perhaps the most successful application of this philosophy has been the Insect Fear Film Festival, now in its 18th year at the University of Illinois. The basic idea of the festival has been to showcase Hollywood films featuring fearsome and threatening insects and to explain to our audience why what they see on the screen can't possibly happen. In this way, scientific information can be presented in an entertaining context. At each festival, we show two or three feature-length films interspersed with animated shorts. The audience also is invited to handle a variety of live specimens -- kind of a "meet the stars" opportunity -- which invariably includes tarantulas (not insects, but crowd-pleasers nonetheless), hissing cockroaches, and tobacco hornworms, among many others, as well as to see displays of preserved specimens. After a few years, the festivals began to be organized around particular themes -- spiders, grasshoppers, social insects, cockroaches, and flies. We also began to hold the festival in conjunction with other events like a children's insect art contest and a thematically relevant blood drive during the 1999 mosquito film festival.

All told, we have shown 41 different feature films and more than 40 shorts in the name of public education, routinely drawing crowds of a thousand or more. Today, public outreach activities sponsored by university entomology departments are commonplace and movies are elements of many. Insects remain the one familiar and conspicuous group that seems to be politically correct to hate and Hollywood has shown no inclination to stop producing bad insect science fiction films. These movies present a terrific opportunity to provide people with a learning experience that's nontraditional and fun.

May Berenbaum heads the department of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has written several books on the subject. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Copyright 2001 by the National Academy of Sciences