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Science Posse Uses Cockroaches to Help UW Students Become Excited About Teaching Science

October 10, 2013
Two students observing an insect
Thomas Troutman, a junior from Deaver, and Kaylie Mossey, a freshman from Cheyenne, measure a cockroach during a lesson in their “Life Science Seminar for Elementary Education” class. The inquiry-based exercise is designed to get UW elementary education majors excited about teaching inquiry-based science. (UW Photo)

For many, Madagascar hissing cockroaches may seem more suitable to be seen at the zoo than handled in the classroom. But, for the University of Wyoming’s Science Posse, the creepy crawlers are actually used to inspire future educators to embrace teaching science at the elementary school level.

Thirty UW undergraduate students in Pete Moran’s pre-service science education course, “Life Science Seminar for Elementary Education,” began sessions Oct. 7 in what will be a monthlong project of caring for cockroaches. Students will build habitats from wood chips and egg cartons; feed them milk bones and dog biscuits; fill water bowls; learn how to handle the insects; periodically measure and weigh the cockroaches to chart growth (some reach 3 inches in length); and even give the bugs their own names.

“I know you’re feeling squeamish, but you’ll be begging me, in two weeks, to take them home,” says Marjorie MacGregor, a UW doctoral candidate in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, and a Science Posse Fellow who led the introductory cockroach session.

After that statement, some students visibly shuddered, while others shook their heads.

But, soon, the students warmed up to the hissing bugs, especially after Marry Marino, a junior from Jackson, became the first brave volunteer to hold one of the cockroaches.

“We did this before in our Life 1020 class,” Marino says. “I’ve done it before, but it’s still kind of scary.”

For some, it certainly was. One female student screamed and jumped up in her seat when one of the bugs momentarily got away and scuttled across the floor.

Thomas Troutman, a junior from Deaver, was one student who had no aversions to handling the creatures.

“I don’t mind that much. You can hardly feel them,” he says, but admitted he would have second thoughts if he were asked to hold a snake. Troutman adds he could understand why elementary school students would enjoy the cockroach lesson.

During the first session, the UW students learned that cockroaches give birth upside down; and, after it molts its exoskeleton during a tiring two-hour process, eats the layer of shed skin for instant energy.

Male cockroaches can be distinguished from females by their thick, hairier antennae and their pronounced horns on their heads. Both genders make a hissing sound when they force air through their respiratory openings.

Despite all of the interesting facts, the students’ charge was to use the cockroaches for an inquiry-based energy experiment. Specifically, “Does the food a cockroach takes in equal what it poops out?” as MacGregor not so delicately put it.

Students used coffee filters to negotiate the twitchy bugs onto miniature scales, where they were initially weighed. Wooden rulers were used to measure the cockroaches. To determine whether the bugs grow, students will continue this process at subsequent sessions, which are scheduled through Oct. 22.

Making science less scary

Moran, associate professor and head of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, teaches the pre-service class and was hopeful the cockroach lesson would open the students’ eyes to the possibilities for teaching science to children and creating hands-on class lessons.

“I feel like a lot of teachers out there have an aversion to science and don’t have as much confidence as they do in teaching other subjects,” Moran says.

He added that many elementary school teachers are women, a group that is often steered away from math and science interests during their own high school years.

MacGregor, who has made hundreds of visits to fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms throughout Wyoming during the past two years as a Science Posse Fellow, has made similar observations. She says the children enjoy learning about and taking care of the cockroaches, but she has found some elementary school teachers are less enthusiastic and reluctant to teach science. MacGregor surmises that some of those teachers use the Science Posse visits to meet science requirements for their students.

“As the Science Posse, our mission is to bring authentic science into the classroom,” MacGregor says. “Why shouldn’t we be doing this to prepare our students, who will become teachers, as well? We should be helping (UW) students so that, when they walk into classrooms, they are empowered.”

Is there a Science Posse future?

The mission becomes even more crucial now. After eight years, the Science Posse may be disbanded next August. That’s because the National Science Foundation (NSF) has ended its funding for the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program (GK-12) nationwide, says Jan Truchot, an assistant research scientist in the Department of Molecular Biology and co-coordinator of the Science Posse.

“The last grant we are on is a five-year, $3 million grant,” Truchot says. “It pays tuition and fees for our graduate students in Science Posse, and pays them a stipend.”

In addition, the grant covers Science Posse travel costs and supplies, as well as for student camps at Teton Science Schools, Truchot says.

“We haven’t given up. We just need to find a replacement vehicle for funding,” says Megan Candelaria, co-coordinator of the Science Posse and a UW doctoral candidate in mathematics education. “We’re exploring additional grant funding and going through the (UW) Foundation here on campus.”

Since 2005, the Science Posse has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and NSF. However, current federal funding for the GK-12 program will end in August 2014. The last grants were awarded in 2011.

Since its inception in Wyoming, the Science Posse has visited every county in the state, making stops at 109 schools and reaching an average of 3,000 students a year. Last year alone, the Science Posse reached more than 8,000 students, says Candelaria, who previously served as a Science Posse Fellow for three years.

Forty-eight UW graduate students have participated as Science Posse Fellows during the past eight years, Truchot says.

“Of those, all but one have finished or are on track to finish their degrees,” she says. “Many are now in academic positions, government and industry.”

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