College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Spring 2000

Insect Ambassadors

By Merrik Bush-Pirkle

    They creep in Australia, scuttle in Arizona, hide in Malaysia and hiss in Trinidad. But at the nonprofit Center for Ecosystem Survival (CES), they educate, delight and inspire.
    “They” are an international troop of insects, which on this particular day include leaf-shaped walking sticks, vinegar-shooting whip scorpions, giant thorny leaf bugs and hissing cockroaches. They’re also just a sampling of the exotic invertebrates inhabiting the Center’s Insect Discovery Lab, an educational outreach program hosted by San Francisco State University. Under the watchful eye and lively oratory of CES Director Norman Gershenz, these hands-on teaching aides make regular visits to Bay Area classrooms, where they help Gershenz educate children about rainforest biodiversity, conservation and the sheer wonder of nature.
“Every child is born a naturalist,” says Gershenz, who carefully extracts what appears to be a stem of dead, brown leaves from a large terrarium. “They haven’t developed phobias yet, so this is the time to get them excited about nature. Insects are great teaching tools with amazing stories to tell, particularly with regard to their place in an ecosystem.”
    As if on cue, the 5-inch-long wilted stem Gershenz now holds in his hand begins to move of its own accord. A closer look reveals a pair of tiny black eyes and two sets of barbed toes where leaf tips might have been. Wearing a sly smile and a twinkle in his eye at what must be a standard foil practiced regularly upon unwitting observers, Gershenz explains the well-camouflaged walking stick’s role in plant regeneration. He carefully returns the unusual creature to its leafy haven and continues where he left off talking.
    “By connecting these insects to the intricate living network of their surrounding environment—and even their importance to us, we can make the point that preserving whole ecosystems—such as rainforests or ocean reefs—is the only real way to preserve species from extinction.”
    The lab, co-founded last June by local entomologist Leslie Saul, is the latest outgrowth of the Center’s decade-long effort to protect the world’s last great centers of biodiversity. Through partnerships with zoos, aquariums, nature centers, universities and public schools, CES has succeeded in saving millions of acres of critical rainforest and reef habitat in Central and South America, Southeast Asia and Micronesia. Fund-raising and outreach programs include the Conservation Parking Meter, Bowl-the-Planet, the highly successful Adopt-An-Acre and Adopt-A-Reef campaigns and, more recently, the Insect Discovery Lab.
     The six-month-old program is Gershenz’s latest attempt to inspire children to take an active interest in conserving endangered habitats. Although some might balk at asking children to help in such a daunting endeavor, Gershenz has successfully challenged schools and individual classrooms across the nation to come up with unique ways to raise money to adopt threatened habitats throughout the world. Before developing the Insect Discovery Lab, Gershenz and colleagues had for years appealed to the sensibilities of youths and teachers through the use of slide shows, lively language, and engaging science and art projects. He relates some of the more successful Adopt-An-Acre campaigns students have launched, his pride in their dedication and achievements clear in his voice.
     “One Colorado school raffled off the privilege of tarring and feathering the principal, who had a great sense of humor about the whole thing,” says Gershenz. “I think they used chocolate and mustard instead of tar, but I can’t be sure. All in all, the kids raised about $1,500.”
     Any effort makes a difference, he says, adding that k-12 schools in all 50 states have participated in the Adopt-An-Acre program in one way or another. “At one high school, they simply sold carnations at the prom. Every bit helps.”
     Checking his watch, Gershenz realizes he’s running short on time before his next presentation. This one, at a day care center in Marin, will garner him a color photo in the local newspaper, accompanied by a few inches of text and the Center’s phone number. For the next week, he’ll be barraged with calls from schools, libraries, parents and even kids asking how they can get the insects into their classrooms for a show-and-tell session.
     As Gershenz fills his compact traveling cases with insect ambassadors from regions far outside this modest lab, he makes a final point. “How we use the earth from this point on comes from what we teach here on out.”

-- Merrik Bush-Pirkle

Giant African Millipede

Giant African Millipede - Kenya, Africa

Whip scorpion from Arizona

Whip scorpion from Arizona, Sonoran desert

Norm Gershenz holding some Eastern lubber grasshoppers

Norm Gershenz holding some Eastern lubber grasshoppers from the Florida Everglades

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on August 3rd, 2000