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November 4, 2013   Instructional News

Attitude adjustment

First-Year Odyssey course introduces freshmen to natural world of insects

J. Merritt Melancon

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By J. Merritt Melancon | November 4, 2013
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Many people—even nature lovers—can have a visceral reaction to insects.

Just the thought of a beetle crawling up their leg is enough to send chills up their spine.

It's a hard attitude to change, but Paul Guillebeau, professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is convinced that even the most entomophobic students can come to appreciate the world of insects.

Guillebeau has taught a First-Year Odyssey course, "World of Entomology," to UGA freshmen for the past couple of years. Each year, his goal is to force his students to look up from their smartphones and notice the natural world. His strategy: Take them out to where insects live and let them get to know their six-legged brethren on their home turf.

"We're just trying to show them how interesting entomology can be," Guillebeau said. "There are more different kinds of insects in the world than there are anything else. Seventy-five percent of all the animals on the planet are insects."

This year, Guillebeau's class has been to the UGA Honey Bee Lab, the State Botanical Garden, Lake Herrick and other points around campus where the secret world of insects is alive and well.

Each Friday, about 20 of his young students pile into a UGA van, butterfly nets in hand and set out on a safari of sorts. They're encouraged to swipe and swing their nets through tall grass, turn over rotting logs and comb through the grass to find as many insects as they can.

"I'm hoping that it will help these students take a look around them and see what's there," Guillebeau said. "You can bet this is the first time that some of these kids have gotten down on the ground and looked through the grass for a spider."

Through their collecting, the students learn the difference between bumblebees, honeybees and carpenter bees, and the names of the half dozen or so butterflies that emerge in Northeast Georgia in the fall.

And most importantly, they learn that these insects aren't out to get them.

"If I let this go, do you think it's just going to rush and sting somebody?" he asks his class, holding up a collection box with a bumblebee in it.

The students stare at him, slowly shaking their heads no. It's all about the baby steps when tackling long-held feelings about bugs, he said.

Guillebeau is known to drive this point home by popping a few male carpenter bees in his mouth, letting them buzz around for a few moments and then releasing them unharmed.

"I didn't even know what entomology was when I signed up for the class," said Zach Fossier, a first-year mass media arts major from Alpharetta. "Then the first day he brings out all of these bugs."

It was freaky at first, but Fossier has come to the point where he can pick up an insect gently and examine it without feeling weird at all.

Everyone in the small class was in the same boat when they started-a little scared of insects. But overcoming that fear together has help bond the class, Fossier said.

"And it's just fun," said Maddie Burgess, a first-year student from Little Rock, Ark., who plans on studying pharmaceutical sciences. "It's not knowledge that I'm going to use for my major, but it's things that you're glad to know."