It's a Bug's Life
by Melissa Leander
You’ll learn about Crustacea, Insecta, Myriapoda and Arachnida, says Greg Zolnerowich, associate professor of entomology, with a huge smile on his face. A stunned student with an open mouth says, “What?” “Yep. You’ll learn all about insects. They are just so cool! Oh, and by the way, call me Dr. Z,” Zolnerowich says. Insects and people is an undergraduate general education course with a focus on the global impact of insects and their relatives on human concerns such as disease vectors, agricultural pests, and their roles in art, history and religion, according to Zolnerowich. He says the course increases in size every semester because of word of mouth from students who have taken the class.
“Entomology classes are becoming hugely popular across the country because people have a fascination about insects and the effects on their lives,” Zolnerowich says. One K-State student agrees the fascination and diversity of insects led her to the class. Leann Spinden, agricultural education student, took the class as an elective. “I chose to take Insects and people because it looked interesting, and it was a topic I did not know anything about,” Spinden says.
What Students Learn
The course examines a broad range of topics from morphology of an insect to insects in art. Zolnerowich believes, though, learning takes place when it is hands on. “Students get a chance to do a variety of hands-on projects like growing the tobacco hornworm and cooking insects in class like chocolate chip cricket cookies and sautéed mealworms, which helps in their understanding of the topic,” Zolnerowich says. Many students have rated the hornworm project as their favorite part of the class. “At first, not being a huge fan of insects and being slightly nervous that my hornworm might not survive, I was hesitant if I would like the project, but it proved to be pretty fun as I was able to watch the hornworm grow and develop,” Spinden says.
Students also get a chance to choose a topic of their choice related to the insect world and work in groups to teach the other students in a lecture format about their topic. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to research and present a topic that related to the class,” Spinden says. “My partner and I researched beekeeping. It was a great way to learn more about a specific topic related to agriculture, and gain presentation and speaking skills along the way.” Spinden says she didn’t realize entomology played such a large role in agriculture. “I realized there are many areas of agriculture I am not aware of. I had taken a lot of animal science and agricultural economics classes and am fairly familiar with agriculture from that viewpoint,” Spinden adds. “Insects and people gave me a look at a part of the agricultural industry that I did not know about.”
At the end of the semester, students visit the Insect Zoo located in the K-State University Gardens to see live insects up close and personal. “I really enjoyed going to the Insect Zoo,” John Peine, animal sciences and industry student says. “The course allowed me to go beyond the classroom learning environment and step out and see how the class material really was a part of our everyday world.”
Zolnerowich says he never teaches the class the same way twice. “I constantly add or delete topics based on trends and relevance to students. I want to make the class as fun and exciting as possible,” Zolnerowich says. His persistence has been recognized with various teaching awards. He won the 2005 Commerce Bank Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching and the 2007 Entomological Society of America, North Central Branch, Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching. Zolnerowich really cares about what he’s teaching, and that his students learn the material. “Dr. Z is an outstanding teacher because of his ability to present the information in a way that truly engages students,” Spinden says.
“Sitting in his class, you can tell that he truly enjoys what he teaches. His enthusiasm for the class is really what sets him apart.” Zolnerowich always ends his last class of the semester by paraphrasing a quote from Thomas Eisner, professor emeritus of chemical ecology at Cornell University, “Insects are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord.”