In collaboration with the NMSU Arthropod Collection, in 2019–2020 our studio created a digital educational tool for entomology, the Virtual Insect Collection Lab. This interactive web module takes learners through the steps of preparing and preserving insects for a scientific collection.
With over 1 million described species, insects are the most diverse group of organisms on Earth. Being able to properly curate specimens for identification is very important to insect science. Each group of insects should be pinned or spread in a specific way for visibility of diagnostic features.
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab helps learners practice the techniques in a relaxed virtual setting, before they deal with physical specimens. The interactive module brings the user through the entire insect pinning/pointing process for each type of insect, using proper equipment such as a pinning block, spreading board, and relaxing chamber.
The interactive includes hand-drawn 3D renderings of butterflies, beetles, true bugs, flies, and ants. Each of these insects represents a group of insects that requires specific handling.
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab was created for middle school students and educators, with a focus on meeting science standards in
New Mexico. During COVID, the lab has been particularly relevant to students and teachers doing remote or hybrid learning. It is also suitable for learners of any age studying insect collections, whether in 4-H, other informal learning, or in classrooms. In coming years, it will be introduced into classrooms in New Mexico in conjunction with lesson plans provided by the Asombro Institute.
Even for students who aren’t planning to make an insect collection, practicing techniques in the virtual insect collection lab fosters appreciation of handling insects. This leads naturally into discussion of insects’ vital roles in global ecosystems. Insects have a tremendous impact on our lives. They eat crops and trees, carry diseases, and can destroy dwellings and clothing. They also help us out a lot, as pollinators, decomposers, biocontrol agents, and in the food chain. As well as stimulating larger conversations about insects, the lab ties in to the topic of museum collections. Historical samples provide data for future generations. Museum collections from the past have helped us to understand changes over time at the community and population levels and in the wider environment.
The Innovative Media, Research & Extension team conducted a pilot study with 4-H learners, agents, parents and leaders to evaluate the effect of the Virtual Insect Collection Lab on youth and adults interest and engagement with insect science. The study explored virtual labs’ potential to give youth a chance to try something they may have previously not had access to and see if it encourages them to explore other related concepts. Adults (4-H parents, agents, and leaders) play a large role in sharing the lab with youth, so we sought to identify the impact of the lab on both youth and adults.
After using the Virtual Insect Collection Lab, youth reported they:
Enjoyed the work in the virtual lab
Felt comfortable pinning insects in the virtual lab.
Felt that using a virtual lab helps increase their confidence in learning science.
Got curious to learn more about insects.
After the lab experience, youth and adults engaged in related activities, including:
Watching videos about insects and pinning collections.
Searching for information about insects on the web.
Asking a family member, 4-H leader, agent, or another person for information on how to learn more about insects.
Sharing the Virtual Insect Collection Lab with 4-Hers, other kids, parents, 4-H leaders or other adults.
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab was designed to be accessible to a wide variety of audiences. The interactive module can be navigated using screen reader, keyboard mapping or click-through onscreen engagement. It includes an introductory video to provide context and explain the insect collection process. (Video text is closed captioned.) Contents of the video and interactive were informed by user testing with middle school students. Our team took particular care to address students’ welfare and environmental concerns about killing insects in order to preserve them. (Insect life spans are very brief, and methods of killing them are quick and humane.)
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab won two Gold awards in the 2021 Association for Communication Excellence in Natural, Life, and Human Sciences Critique & Awards Program: Interactive Multimedia/Web Graphics and Graphic Design illustration: Single or a Series.
The Virtual Insect Collection Lab is based upon work supported by the SPECA Challenge Grant, National Institute of Food and Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2018-38414-
Chamberlin, B. A., Martinez, P.N., Muise, A. S., Cezarotto, M., Bundy, S. (2021, June). It’s (Not) Alive! Student Perceptions of Virtual Insect Collection Lab. Paper presented at the meeting of North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture, Online.
Amy Smith Muise, Program Manager, in collaboration with C. Scott Bundy, PhD, Director of the Arthropod Collection.