In a classroom at N.C. State University’s Gardner Hall, graduate student Stephanie Gorski teaches a lesson in entomology. But the class of second graders benefiting from her instruction is in a classroom at Carrboro Elementary School, about 30 miles away.
Distance education isn’t anything new in higher education, but it has become a new outreach tool for N.C. State’s graduate entomology students, who provide a number of such classes to younger students across the state each year. Gorski, who oversees the outreach program with fellow student Jessica Houle, said that between February and May, graduate students conducted more than 30 outreach classes, with five more planned.
The traditional method of hosting the outreach classes has been face-to-face – mostly in the Triangle area where N.C. State is located. But using Skype as a distance education tool has allowed the graduate students to reach out to classrooms further away. Earlier in May, graduate student Steve Turner held a presentation for a first- and second- grade class in Asheville, about four and a half hours drive from Raleigh.
Skype, a free software, allows two parties to link through a video connection between computers.
“The Entomology Graduate Student Association at N.C. State has coordinated an educational outreach program for a number of years,” said Dr. George Kennedy, Entomology Department head. “This program is designed to expose children and the public to the interesting, exciting world of insects and the important roles they play in the natural world and the human condition. It also fosters students’ interest in science and the natural world in general.”
Gorski’s presentation to Susan Murray’s second grade class involved a laptop computer, projector and camera. Prior to the class, the second graders had prepared questions for Gorski to answer. She did not disappoint, but she admitted that answering the questions required some research on her part.
Among the questions the second graders asked were:
• How big is an ant egg?
• How deep is a leafcutter nest?
• How long does a praying mantis live?
• Why do ladybugs have spots?
Gorski went through the students’ questions, providing answers and information. She also gave the students a look at some insect specimens from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The live insects drew lots of “ooohhhs” and “aaahhhhhs” from the second graders.
First, Gorski showed a Cecropia moth that emerged from a cocoon collected by entomology professor Dr. Jack Bacheler. The friendly moth held fast to Gorski’s finger, leaving her to complete her presentation with the moth in tow. She also showed students a 6-inch walking stick, as well as a large beetle with enormous pincers.
At the end of the one-hour presentation, Murray’s class still had lots of insect questions for Gorski, which Murray promised to send to Gorski for more information. Murray said the students enjoyed the presentation, even though they were tired from a field trip earlier in the day.
“It really fit our needs as we learned about research,” Murray said. “We’d talked about how we can learn through books and the Internet or by talking to an expert. Stephanie was our expert!”
Steve Turner, a doctoral student studying the evolution of gender selection in dance flies, said he enjoyed the Skype session he conducted for the Asheville class. “I think the students can see better (on a screen),” he said.
Gorski, a doctoral student studying worms that damage corn, said the Skype presentation helped keep her on track. “Skype is a really good idea, and it works really well,” she said, adding that it’s harder to get graduate students to volunteer for outreach presentations that require a long trip from campus. The graduate student organization welcomes requests for outreaches, she said.
“The program is in great demand and the graduate students volunteer their time to conduct these educational programs in schools, museums, camps and other venues. We are extremely proud of this program and the graduate students’ commitment to it,” Kennedy said.
For more information on entomology graduate outreach programs visit the student association website: