Students Use Bugs to Promote Science at Zoo

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Tiny critters that crawl on their bellies propelled by their 20 legs and are capable of curling up into tight, tiny balls were the vessels of instruction for eight UTEP student teachers who were part of the Hands On Science program at the El Paso Zoo.

The Miners set up four stations inside the zoo’s El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Education Center, where about 50 fifth-graders from Burleson Elementary School would learn about the bugs and their impact on the environment during fun, hands-on activities meant to stimulate the young visitors’ interest in science and nature.Ron Wagler, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, and his students teach fifth-graders about bugs at the El Paso Zoo. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServiceRon Wagler, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, and his students teach fifth-graders about bugs at the El Paso Zoo. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

The April 30 event concluded UTEP’s four-week involvement in “Hands On Science,” a pilot program that involved the zoo and the El Paso Independent School District. It was developed in part by Ron Wagler, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, and the students in his elementary science education course.

The UTEP students instructed the Burleson pupils about entomology – the study of insects – and the value of arthropods to the world’s ecosystems on Monday mornings. On April 30, the young students visited stations were they could watch the bugs eat or race in tubes, make the bugs out of Play-Doh, or crawl on carpets like roly-poly pill bugs with their stomachs on the ground.

An emphasis was placed on student movement and interaction to keep the young minds thinking, said Korina Salazar, a senior education major who already has started her student teaching at Johnson Elementary School. She said a lesson combined with movement improves content retention and comprehension.

“You could tell that the students were excited,” Salazar said after the students left the center to find examples of bug life on the zoo grounds. “By talking with them, you get them to think of the answers. It’s so cool when you see they have that ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

The program has been good for The University of Texas at El Paso students because it gives them a chance to teach in an informal setting and help ease the general fears about bugs, Wagler said.

“It’s really been fun. My students have loved it,” he said. “We’ve really enjoyed working with the zoo and its volunteers, and the Burleson students and faculty. It’s been a very positive experience.”

Burleson Principal Pam Howard said her teachers were skeptical at first and were concerned about the time away from class, but learned to appreciate its impact on their students, who raved about the opportunity to work with and study a wide variety of bugs who live in this region and beyond.

“I think the most important part of this was that it opened them to a world they never had experienced,” said Howard, who earned her master’s degree in education from UTEP in 1997. “Our students couldn’t wait for the next week. They will miss it a great deal.”

During previous weeks, Wagler brought spiders and cockroaches from his living arthropod education laboratory collection housed in the University’s College of Education Building. Among the spiders brought to the zoo were endangered species whose ancestors hailed from Sri Lanka and India.

The Hands On Science program is a collaborative effort to spur students’ interest in science and to help them with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test. It was funded by the Wolslager Foundation and the Boeing Company, with the help of U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.

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