Tag Archives: teaching

Malham in the Sun – introducing entomology to budding ecologists

Last year I wrote about my experience of being a tutor at the British Ecological Society’s Undergraduate Summer School at the Malham Tarn Field Studies Council site. I really enjoyed myself and also found it very refreshing to have the opportunity to interact with 50 bright young proto-ecologists. It appears that the students also enjoyed themselves as I was invited back this year to repeat my performance. I was very happy to accept the offer, after all, any chance to visit the county of my birth (Yorkshire) is not to be sneezed at and with the added bonus of being able to talk about entomology to a new audience thrown in I would have been made to turn it down. Thus it was that I headed up the dreaded M6 motorway on a sunny Monday afternoon (July 18th) with joy in my heart and a car boot full of entomological equipment and identification keys. The M6 did not disappoint and I spent an hour sweltering in the summer sunshine very slowly (very, very slowly) making my way through the inevitable road works. Luckily, being one of those people who likes to arrive early for appointments, I was only fifteen minutes late collecting my trusty assistant, Fran Sconce, from the very picturesque Settle Station and then heading up on to the FSC Malham Tarn site.

Malham 1
The weather on arrival was in marked contrast to last year.

We unloaded the car and just had time to set up 35 pitfall traps before heading in for the evening meal after which the students went on a long walk to Malham Cove.

Malham 2

The long walk

 I walked part of the way back with them but turned back in time to get to the bar 🙂  for a very welcome drink, before retiring to bed.

The next day was even hotter, and we spent the morning setting up the labs and teaching areas.


This year, as well as the fifty undergraduates we had ten sixth form students from several different schools in London.  Last year interacting with a class of fifty had posed certain difficulties, so this year we divided the students into two groups and ran the session twice, once on the Tuesday afternoon and then again on the Wednesday morning.  This worked extremely well and meant that Fran and I and the PhD mentors assigned to us, were able to spend much more time with each student and also meant that we were not as rushed off our feet as we would have been otherwise.  So a win/win outcome, although I did have to give the same lecture twice in 24 hours which was an interesting experience.  On the Tuesday afternoon, I started with my lecture on why entomology is important and an overview of the insects.

Malham 3

I seem to have done a lot of arm waving


We then went outside and I demonstrated sampling methods while the students baked under, a by now, extremely hot sun, before sending them off to empty and reset the pitfall traps and collect other insects using nets and beating trays.

Malham 5

Being cruel to trees


Malham 6  Malham 4

Some of the stars of the day


Then it was back to the labs to identify the catches before the evening meal and refreshing drink or two in the bar*.   After the bar closed we had the fluorescent beetle extravaganza.  Last year I demonstrated the use of fluorescent dust on one hapless carabid beetle.  This year I used ten, and two different coloured dusts.  The beetles were then released after dark in

Malham 7

Fluorescing carabids

the courtyard outside the teaching labs where they were photographed fluorescing colourfully under my UV flashlight, as I ‘chased’ them around the arena, much to the delight of the watching students.

As the weather forecast was not very good for the Wednesday morning, we did the insect sampling first, in case the forecast rain was as heavy as predicted.  As it turned out, apart from a short sharp shower, whilst I was demonstrating sampling methods, the sun came out and there were plenty of insects to collect before I did my lecture and we headed in to the labs for another ID session.  All too soon the session was over, and Fran and I, after a hasty lunch, drove back down to Shropshire.

I think that the BES summer school is a superb idea and that the students get a great deal from it.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope that I get the chance to be involved in any future summer schools.  I was also greatly impressed by the 6th formers who certainly seemed to enjoy my entomology session, one of whom produced this excellent drawing.

Malham 8

Much better than anything I could draw

For those of you on Twitter #bestug16 will give you a flavour of the whole week.

Malham 9

Glorious Yorkshire


*staffed that evening by the son of my best friend from school!


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Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply 🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.


The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.


From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time 🙂


That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.


Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.


The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular


Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.


How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.


Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects



I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance 🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much


more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects


My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.



Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

Leather, S. R. (2009). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56, 10-13.



*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it 🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”





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Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis


  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)


An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.


Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉



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Look Back in Angers – Teaching in France but not in French

I have long been aware of the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) having had many Erasmus students in my classes over the years whilst at Imperial College.  It was however, only after moving to Harper Adams University, that I found out that there was also a similar programme to enable academic staff to spend time teaching at sister institutions.  I was contacted earlier this year by Joséphine Pithon from the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers who wondered if I would like to come across to Angers a city I am ashamed to admit that I had very little knowledge of.  The chance of spending a week in France, my favourite holiday destination, was too good to turn down and my wife Gill was also very keen to have a short break and refresh her French language skills.  To cut a long story short, on Monday 24th March, we caught the Eurostar to Lille and then the TGV on to Angers, arriving mid-afternoon in, to our dismay, a very wet Angers.  We booked into our hotel, found somewhere not too far away to eat and then retired to deal with emails (sad to say we had both brought our laptops with us) and for me to double-check that my lectures were ready to deliver.
Tuesday dawned warm and sunny, much to Gill’s relief who had a day of sightseeing planned and I walked to ESA, which was only ten minutes away, collecting a roundabout on the way, albeit not as  spectacular as those in the south of France.

Roundabout Angers

 I arrived at a very welcoming ESA and managed to  make myself understood at reception and was introduced to my first class, a group of third years getting their first introduction to

ESA welcome

entomology.  It seemed to go well and despite me lecturing in English they asked a lot of pertinent questions. I then gave them two lectures on sampling and survey methods before going for lunch with my hosts.  I must give the staff canteen (cantine) a rave review – for less than €5 we got a three course lunch with coffee. Then it was back to lecture to a fourth year group about biological control and pest management, again to a very interactive group of students.  Then it was the short walk back to the hotel followed by an excellent meal in the city centre with my new French colleagues.  On the way we admired the bendy trams and marveled at the ingenuity of having ‘green’ tramways wherever possible.

 Tram  Tram lines

The next day I gave a seminar and then we headed out into the field with the third year students to collect insects and other invertebrates using a mixture of methods, pitfall traps, yellow pan traps, pooters, beating trays (known as Japanese umbrellas in French), sweep nets and extendable butterfly nets.  French students in the field are very similar in

Students getting briefed            Pan trap                Angers fieldwork

Extended net             Head first               Using  the pooter

behaviour to their British counterparts 😉  Then it was the end of the day and time to relax and find somewhere nearby to eat and get ready for a morning in the laboratory on Thursday.

Thursday morning was spent with the students helping them identify the various organisms that they had brought back from our day in the field.  It appears that whilst students have to wear lab coats staff are exempt!  Our lab manager at Harper Adams would never allow that; I am frequently being told off for popping into the lab sans coat.

Busy in the lab

In the lab I had to use my French a bit more as some students were better than others at English and in a one to one situation I feel a little less hesitant about demonstrating my inept language skills.  I think we all had a fun morning and learnt a lot from each other.  After an excellent lunch it was time for a break; there is no teaching at ESA on a Thursday afternoon so I was free to join Gill for an afternoon of sightseeing around Angers.  Needless to say it began to rain!  Nevertheless we saw the magnificent Château d’Angers, once the home of René I a most impressive building even in the rain and with a nice entomological surprise on the ramparts; beehives..

Chateau 2           Chateau                Bee hives

And of course a mini-vineyard complete with a rose bush at the end of the row to give early warning of mildew infections! Great to see pest management in action;-)

Vine yard  Rose at end of row

Thursday evening saw us at a great little restaurant in the city centre where we met up with Professor David Logan a plant physiologist at the University of Angers, and someone I had previously only met on Twitter.  He introduced us to a couple of very nice local wines and we had a superb (and very reasonably priced) meal. It was a great end to a fantastic and educational trip.  I think it is very impressive that the French students are willing and able to be lectured to in English.  I am ashamed to say that I think that very few of our own students would be able to cope with a week of teaching in French!

Given the chance I would definitely like to repeat the experience and spend more time there.

Post script
Whilst roaming the corridors of ESA I came across a departmental notice board where I saw this cutting from the February issue of the L’Éleveur laitier a French agricultural magazine, and was very amused to see how they portrayed British farmers!

How they see us





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Why I Joined the Twitterati: Blogs, Tweets & Talks – Making Entomology Visible

It is now thirteen months since I tweeted my first tweet and almost a year since my blog went public.  It is thus an opportune moment I feel to assess how this first year has gone and to see if I can convert other oldies and not so oldies to make that leap into the world of public social media.  For many years I had held the whole concept of social media in contempt – Facebook and Twitter for me, represented the very epitome of mindless gossip and tabloid extremism.  I saw them as entirely the domain of the chattering classes and the idle young.  Perhaps an extreme view, since some of my children, a number of my colleagues, my wife and even my mother-in-law were on Facebook. Still, as someone who did not get a mobile phone until March this year (and only because of the fact that during the week, I live alone, and my wife feels that it is a sensible thing to have in case of emergency), I guess I was just living up the image of the techno-refusenik.

That said, I have always felt that the job of a scientist is to communicate and having always had a desire to teach and pass on my enthusiasm for entomology to others, I have not been remiss in coming forward.  I did actually have a fling with public engagement way back in 1981 when I worked in Finland and developed their early warning system for cereal aphids.  My research actually appeared in the Finnish national farmer’s magazine almost simultaneously with my official scientific publication.

Kaytannon Maamies   Front page Leather & Lehti

My subsequent career as first a forest entomologist with the Forestry Commission and then as a university teacher at Imperial College, was pretty much that of the typical academic, with the occasional appearance on the radio and the rare television interview, plus the odd reference to my work in the national or local newspapers.

Powe of Bugs

Mainly however, I was, until about the turn of the century just communicating with my peers i.e. publishing scientific papers and facilitating communication between other entomologists; I seem to have spent the last twenty years or so editing journals, first cutting my teeth on the Royal Entomological Society’s house journal Antenna, and then moving on to Ecological Entomology and for the last seven years as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity.  So there I was facilitating the dissemination of entomological knowledge around the world and busy doing my own entomological research and training future entomologists by running the only entomology degree in the UK and also of course supervising lots of PhD students. All very commendable indeed, but perhaps a bit limited in scope…

Limited scope

Round about the turn of the century I started to get really fed up with the ignorance shown about entomology and the bias towards vertebrates by funding bodies and journals.   I started going into schools and giving talks to the public whenever possible trying to draw people’s attention to the importance of insects..

Small and local

And getting more and more provocative..

Death to polar bears

And getting more and more irritated and desperate in print..


It was obvious that there was a problem; the misconception that the public tend to have in that all insects are either pests or things that sting or bite them and need to be stamped on (Leather & Quicke, 2009:  http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf ).  Some of the entomological misconceptions were amusing but being entomologically pedantic still wrong..

Funny but wrong

others which were annoying but perhaps excusable..

Top trumps   Top trumps2

and some which were just plain inexcusable..

No Excuse

The problem has been neatly summed up by others too..


One of my PhD students, Fran Sconce, whom I have known since she was an undergraduate…

Fran graduation

had for some time been extolling the virtues of social media as a means of scientific communication,

Fran Twitter

finally convinced me that it was time to make a leap and to move into a different environment.


and thus was born @Entoprof


and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

Blog header

So like a fellow ex-Silwoodian, Natalie Cooper who recently reported on her first year as a blogger/tweeter http://www.ecoevoblog.com/2013/10/29/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet-that-is-the-question/ I too feel the need to assess how this first year has gone.

Well, first I found that there were lots of old friends out there, and even my old school started following me….

Old friends

A ton of ex-students, not all of whom are entomologists…


Increased opportunities for outreach and meeting people I didn’t even know existed..


And making new professional links….

Professional links

And incidentally as an Editor I have found new people to ask to act as reviewers and I’ve had great fun continuing my fight against institutional vertebratism …

Vertebrate bias

and got a great result which I am certain I wouldn’t have got without Twitter..


With my new friends I entered into public debate..

public debate

and got another result which again would not have happened without Twitter..

BBC Wildlife

and found a new way to interact at conferences..

conference interactions

and been really inspired.  I have thoroughly embraced the concept of social media and have now set up a Twitter account for the Entomology MSc http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology  I run..

MSc Entomology

and also a Blog for them to run http://aphidsrus.wordpress.com/

Ento blog

My latest venture with the aid of


is the A-Z of Entomology, the first letter of which you can view here if you want to learn about aphids  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liBt59teaGQ

So yes it has been a great year and a heartfelt thank you to all my Tweeps and to all of you that follow my blog.  I really have found this both useful and educational.  It has been a great eye-opener.  And of course a really big vote of thanks to Fran for finally convincing me that I should join the Twitterati.


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Exams – the easy option?

Having spent a considerable amount of the last month or so invigilating and marking exams, not to mention doing my stint as external examiner for the MSc in Conservation Management at Writtle College I have started to think about what is that we expect to achieve by setting exams.  In fact, I have even begun to wonder if we need exams at all.  Do we just set exams because that it is the way it has always being or do they tell us something that other assessment methods can’t?

I have used the word easy in my title, which at first sight might seem a little contradictory.  After all, as an examiner, there is the annual slog of producing ‘novel’ questions, together with a model or indicative answer, against which to mark, and then there is the curse of marking X number of scripts in a very short time, making sure that you grade the answers according to whichever criteria your department or institution has opted for. Not exactly a stress-free occupation and made worse by the fact that inevitably there is an incredibly short turnaround time required so that the students don’t have to wait too long to hear their fate.  Marking is definitely one of my least favourite things.

Joys of marking

We should also of course, not forget the stress and anguish that most students will have gone through to produce the scripts that you, with a strict time limit to observe, will inevitably spend less time on than they deserve.

Why do we use exams, and in this case I mean the traditional, sit down and answer questions in a room full of other aspirants, mostly all perspiring nervously and hoping against hope that the topics the revised will be on the face-down script in front of them.  The easy answer is that they tell us, the teachers, how much the student has understood of what they

Exam hall

have been taught and how good they are at retaining that information and  regurgitating it on to a piece of paper.  We would also argue that it tells us which students are also able to interpret and analyse what they have been taught and put it into context in a stressful situation.  From that, plus usually some coursework and a dissertation or research project, we can then assign (in the UK at least) an arcane grade (First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third, Pass or Fail or at MSc level, Distinction, Merit, Pass or Fail) that then determines the future of that student.  On the student side, a written exam  favours those with good memories, the ability to shrug off stress and write quickly, legibly and coherently.  That said, after some 40-odd years of sitting and setting exams, I find that I can pretty much tell what final degree result a student will achieve just from teaching and interacting with them in class, without actually seeing any written work.

So why do we need exams, why not just go for a less stressful approach?  Well obviously that would not work, because occasionally, even I am surprised by a result and more importantly, how would you assess  if the student had attained the required learning outcomes?  So you definitely need some form of assessment.  In other words, some form of coursework testing, which arguably reflects the situations we face in real life.  Coursework gives students the chance to be analytical, synoptic and reflective, to read around their subject and to meet deadlines.  There are also arguments against this form of assessment.  These include, marking (coursework actually requires you to give some feedback), direct cheating by copying and pasting from sources; plagiarism software helps, but doesn’t tell you if there has been collusion.  In addition, it penalises the bright but lazy.  I revelled in exams; coursework, which luckily in my degree, didn’t count towards my final degree, was, sad to say, something I expended only the minimum of effort on.   It tended to get in the way of my social life.  What are the plus points for exams?  They are a good quick test that puts students on the spot, trains them to learn, to cope with stress and to time manage.  On the other hand you might argue that what it really tests is memory, stress resilience and the ability to write with a pen.  On the negative side, there is a great tendency for students, and I was no exception in my early years as an undergraduate, to analyse past exam papers and reduce the pressure on their memory centres, by question spotting and by avoiding revising any material from lecturers that they didn’t like or who are known to be hard markers.  Thus you end up with students who may have passed their exams but have gaping holes in their knowledge base.  You can argue that a written exam allows us to test synoptic and analytical thinking, but this could be tested just as effectively with coursework, as synoptic thinking is certainly not restricted to exams.  A huge downside is the marking element.  Do we do the students justice?  Almost certainly not.  A typical final year exam might require the student to answer three questions in three hours, so forty minutes per answer.  If you are lucky and have a relatively small class, of thirty students, that results in 90 scripts in less than perfect hand-writing.  You then probably have two weeks to turn the scripts around, including them being moderated, or second-marked by a colleague.  Practices differ between institutions, but, in my experience, there is always some element of moderation/quality review, either by marking a sample of the scripts or in some places looking at very single exam answer.  Suppose you allow a mere ten minute per script, that will take you 15 hours if you went at it non-stop.  Some of my colleagues have several hundred scripts to mark – how can they possibly do them justice?  How much rest do you give yourself between batches, how many scripts can you mark before your analytical ability is eroded? Should you go through and re-read every script after you have finished marking all the scripts?

So what alternatives are there?  Some course modules at other universities and here at Harper Adams are assessed entirely by coursework and that raises the collusion/cheating concerns mentioned earlier.  We can detect plagiarism using software such as Turnitin™, but how can we tell that someone else didn’t write the essay, prepare the presentation or write the report and of course you still have to mark the work!  What about on-line assessment?  On the entomology MSc that I run, some modules are tested entirely by Multiple Choice Questions on-line; administered and marked by the computer – how good is that 😉  It is also a good way of testing basic entomological factual knowledge but again it is a memory test and doesn’t really test application and synthesis.  We also use short answer questions in conjunction with some on-line testing; this lets us test across a range of the learning outcomes, but again does not really allow much synthesis and analytical thought, and generates piles of marking, albeit somewhat easier, as mainly checking against lists.  One of my colleagues is very much in favour of exams, as he has rather a jaundiced view of coursework, although it can give us an opportunity to assess different skill sets; oral presentation, team work, writing skills, analytical thought and in the case of entomology, identification skills.  Unfortunately it does produce piles of marking, but hopefully also is good for deep learning which is what I think we want as an end result.

Another interesting method of assessment which I quite like the idea of, is an open book exam, where students are presented with some reading material some days or even weeks before the exam without being told what the questions will be, are allowed to take their annotated document in with them and are then presented with an exam paper with three questions, all of which must be answered.  Having observed this in practice, I have now come up with an interesting variant which I hope to be able to get approved by our exam board.  Students arrive in a computer room, they are presented with an exam paper, with, say six questions of which they have to answer three, and then allowed to use the internet to bolster their knowledge.  They are only allowed to take notes using pen and paper.  Two hours later they then move to a secure computer, with no internet access and spend the next two hours writing their exam.  This is more akin to real life, where you solve problems that you know some basic background stuff about by checking sources, getting extra information and then synthesising that knowledge into an intelligible report.  Of course it doesn’t  around the marking problem.

My friend Professor Guy Poppy at The University of Southampton, has gone on record via Twitter, suggesting that we could test students at the end of their university course with a portfolio of work and a 15 minute oral examination to check that what is there is actually their own, work, basically a mini-PhD viva.

Guy Poppy

Is this a mad idea?  Actually the Italians do all their exams orally and the Germans use a mixture of  written and oral exams.

A pleasant chat

An oral exam could be a bit stressful for shy students and might be an advantage for extroverts.  You would of course need a panel of at least three people to ensure fair play.  A typical British university final year might have 150 students in it.  So at 15 minutes a viva, which I think is probably too short, that would be almost 37 hours.  So let’s assume that the Department has sixty academics, allocates three staff members per viva, so 20 vivas can be run at once.  If we allow five minutes for marking that gives us twenty minutes per student which equals sixty vivas every hour.  So even if we decide to let the students have a bit more time to impress the examiners, we can still easily examine the whole final year in a day and the academics will only need to take part in three or four oral exams.  We used a similar system as part of the final year research project assessment when I was in the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College and that worked reasonably well.  What about consistent standards and available expertise?  You need a balanced department and also some people who have to circulate between panels to ensure similar standards, but even so, this could be a viable option.  It does not however, do away with marking the portfolio of work during the preceding three or four years, but perhaps if modules are assessed with a mixture of on-line MCQ tests plus informal use of the usual assessment methods, so not requiring detailed marking, it might actually work and encourage deep learning.

So at the end of all this I don’t really have an answer.  I find marking really tedious, but students and staff need the feedback to know if learning outcomes are being achieved.  Exams are a pain for the students to do but even more of a pain for academic staff to mark!  What I do quite like though is the idea of the short, sharp open book exam, despite the fact that it would need marking.  I would welcome any ideas and also any examples of novel easy to administer and mark test/exams and alternative assessment methods that have worked for you.

Post script

Just as I was going to post this, Meg Dufy over at Dynamic Ecology posted a great post about teaching ideas and their possible assessment methods.


Filed under Teaching matters

Desperately seeking sources: the quest for the original citation

From 1993 until 2012 I taught a final year course at Imperial College called Applied Ecology.  The relevant part of the course blurb used to say:

Course Outline:  Applied ecology, philosophy and concepts.   Nature Conservation, Nature Reserves (history and philosophy), SSSIs, legal aspects, SLOSS, butterfly case studies.  Mammal conservation, issues and dilemmas.   Forestry and woodland management, effects of afforestation, effects on pest and disease incidence, conservation. Habitat creation and management.  Waterways and fisheries. Agroecosystems, agricultural practice and objectives, crop history and evolution, pest incidence. Organic farming, effects on pest incidence, weeds, workshops.  Pest management and the environment, residues, niche replacement, biocontrol, resistance, social and economic effects, IPM in harmony with conservationists. Sampling, forecasting and monitoring. Workshops and mini-conference. Visit to London Zoo (Captive breeding programme).

Those of you with eagle eye vision may have noticed that one of the topics covered was biocontrol; for those of you with vision more like mine, I have highlighted the word biocontrol in bold. As most of this course was material that I had lived and breathed either since I was an undergraduate, or as part of my professional research career (except for the rivers and lakes), I was in the enviable position of not having to do a lot of background research to prepare lectures and source material.  It was quite literally, sitting there in my head.  This did of course lead to some sloppy habits.  For example, as an undergraduate my crop protection lecturer at Leeds (the late Dr Noel Gibson) when telling us about biological control and its history, mentioned that the Chinese had, long ago, introduced ant nests to citrus orchards and to enhance their activities, stretched bamboo poles between trees.  So to my lazy self, this was a fact and thus when preparing my slide on the history of biological control I put it down as a fact without acknowledging any source [something I happily tell students and others off for not doing!].

bological control slide

I sort of felt guilty about this but always said in the lecture that this is what my lecturer had told me when I was an undergraduate and as none of the students ever asked me for the actual reference I let it slide.  Then one year (2006), I was reading a science fiction novel by a Scottish novelist, Kenneth McLeod, who just so happens to have a degree in zoology.  The book, as far as I remember, described the attempts of earth colonists attempting to establish crops on an alien planet.  Their crops were being devastated by pests and the xeno-biologist said, and I quote very loosely, as this was back in 2006, said (and I am sure you have guessed it already) “I remember my lecturer telling me when I was an undergraduate about how the Chinese used to facilitate biological control by running bamboo poles between orange trees so that the ants could be more effective”.  “Wow”  I said, and “Wow” again, because Ken McLeod had put a reference in a footnote, to Wheeler (1910).  So there was my source.  I now had a mission. Despite the fact that I had accepted the story as fact since 1976, I felt an urgent need to see the reference for myself.  Using the internet I tracked down a copy of Wheeler in an antiquarian book shop in Amsterdam and ignoring the sarcastic comments of my wife, purchased it on-line and waited impatiently for it to arrive.  As we were now in the Christmas vacation it didn’t arrive until the New Year.  I ripped open the parcel and was the proud owner of a copy of Wheeler’s Ants ; interestingly, the copy I now owned had once been in the library stock of Cornell University, so had made rather a long journey to end up in Bracknell almost a hundred years later.


I started to read it; luckily I didn’t have to go very far as there on page 9 was the story of the Chinese ants in black and white; unfortunately, it appeared that Wheeler was not the primary source, he was indulging in yet another bug-bear of mine, quoting someone,

Wheeler page 9

McCook (1882), who had quoted someone else (Magowan), without giving the original source.  So now I had to track down McCook!

McCook refs

Luckily, since Wheeler had actually cited McCook, I was able to do this successfully using the inter-library loan service.

McCook 1882

So now I had the citation for Magowan.  Unluckily it was in rather an obscure newspaper, The North China Herald.  This posed a bit of a problem and slowed my search down.  Luckily in recent years, there has been a huge international effort made into digitising newspapers and I was finally able to track down an electronic archive holding the relevant issue and

North China Herald front page

eventually find the relevant page.  Success, after almost seven years I had finally tracked down the original source of the ‘fact’ that I had been retelling for all those years. I felt quite

North China Herald page zoom 363

proud of myself , although my wife, who is not a scientist, says that this is yet another example of how weird we scientists are.  On the other hand, I was somewhat disappointed that I had only tracked it down to 1882 as I am sure that this must be an ancient agricultural practice with its roots, many hundreds, if not thousands of years in the past.  Perhaps my next self-imposed mission impossible, will be to find the oldest mention of the practice.

 Post script

Today, I just happened to be looking for a book in my office, when I noticed one of my old course texts, Van den Bosch & Messenger (1973),

Van Den Bosch    Inside van den Bosch

which I notice cost me £2 in 1976, actually quite a lot of money as my student grant was just over £600 in total.

Flicking the book open I soon found the page with the Chinese ant story on it and a citation to the 1882 McCook paper.  So, if I had thought to look at my old text-book I could have saved myself the expense of buying Wheeler’s book, which was not cheap.  But then if I had, I would never have discovered Wheeler and I would have missed all the fun of chasing the references down, so I think it was worth it overall.


McCook, H.C. (1882) Ants as beneficial insecticides. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia, 34, 263-271.

 van den Bosch, R. & Messenger, P.S. (1973) Biological Control, Intertext Books, New York & Leighton Buzzard.

Wheeler, W.M. (1910) Ants: Their Structure, Development and Behavior, Columbia University Press, New York & London.


Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes, Teaching matters

Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

On Saturday (16th February) I attended the Shropshire Entomology Day at Preston Montford http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/prestonmontford.aspx organised by Peter Boardman of the Field Studies Council http://www.field-studies-council.org/. The day was very well attended, about 75 people in total, and the talks ranged from detailed discourses on how to tell aquatic bugs apart to more general talks such as that by Peter Boardman  (my personal favourite) about the genealogy of a box of insects once owned by the remarkable Dipterist and blackfly expert, Lewis Davies http://www.blackfly.org.uk/downloadable/bsgbull28.pdf and that by Richard Becker showing us how he has made his organic Welsh hill farm into a haven for a wide variety of insects from dung-flies to butterflies.  I was there with my Professorial hat on, and incidentally my entomological t-shirt, to spread the word about the MSc in Entomology that we run at Harper Adams University http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology and to foster links between us and other like-minded individuals and organisations.  We also heard about plans for a new Dragonfly Atlas for Shropshire and the forthcoming Cranefly Distribution Atlas for Shropshire, as well as the herculean efforts of the Wrekin Forest Volunteers http://wrekinforestvolunteers.blogspot.co.uk/ to ensure that every tetrad in the count at least one invertebrate record associated with it.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative day.  The thing that struck me most however, and I have made this observation before http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf, was that the age range of the speakers and audience was heavily skewed towards the grey end of the spectrum, me included.  There were some relative youngsters present, but the overwhelming majority of the participants present, and those pictured in the talk by Paul Watts about the Wrekin Forest Volunteers, were heading towards retirement age or definitely past it.  I have noticed this phenomenon many times when giving talks to local Natural History Societies, most markedly at the Crowthorne Natural History Society, http://cnhg.org.uk/meetings.html where I was the youngest person present by at least 15 years!

So where were all the youngsters, and in this case I mean the 20-30 age group.  Volunteering to work abroad at great expense on projects involving charismatic mega-fauna or sat in front of their computer screens playing games or engaging with their peers on Face Book?  That said, one young man I spoke with, was planning to go to university to study ecology, an ambition that had been stimulated by volunteering in India, but the impression I got was that once qualified, he intended to return to India to continue on similar projects rather than get involved with small local projects as I advocated in a previous article https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/think-small-and-local-focus-on-large-charismatic-mega-fauna-threatens-conservation-efforts/ .

Yes I had an enjoyable day, yes I made some great contacts and yes, I even stimulated interest in the courses we offer, but Houston, we have a problem. There is enthusiasm at primary school level and the Bug Club http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/ do a great job at fostering this enthusiasm, but secondary school teaching (with some rare exceptions) and sadly, biology, zoology and ecology degrees at undergraduate level in the UK, largely relegate entomological teaching to a handful of lectures, concentrating instead on molecular biology or, when whole organisms are mentioned, my pet bugbear, charismatic mega-fauna.  My greatest fear is, that unless we can get secondary schools and universities to provide teaching that encompasses the invertebrate world, we will not only see the continued lack of engagement with invertebrates by the young, but we will also lose the older end of the spectrum as the endangered entomologically enthusiastic youngsters become extinct and no longer provide us with the next generation of grey entophiles who maintain sites such as this http://www.insects.org/entophiles. I find it hard to imagine that there are people who can fail to love or be thrilled by organisms such as this giant water bug, once they have them drawn to their attention.



At the risk of sounding alarmist I really feel that it is imperative that we get the message of how important entomology is out  to all levels of society and government before it is too late.  How we do this is another matter, but do it we must.


Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog

Where have all the woolly bears gone? Woolly bears what are they?

Just a brief thought this week, mainly about shifting baselines and changing perceptions.  I attended the launch of the State of Britain’s Larger Moth’s Report   http://www.mothscount.org/uploads/State%20of%20Britain’s%20Larger%20Moths%202013%20report.pdf last week (February 1st) which as well as giving me the chance to catch up with a number of old friends, also enabled me to hear Chris Packham http://www.chrispackham.co.uk/  giving a lively and very entertaining talk about why moths are important and how he got hooked by ‘natural history’.  He cited as one of the main factors,  his childhood experiences of rearing (or attempting to rear) woolly bear caterpillars, the larvae of the Garden Tiger moth Arctia caja,  a widespread and common species when I was a child and teenager in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Woolly bear larva



When I was earning extra money working as a postman in the Vale of York during my student years, it was one of the insects that I could guarantee I would encounter on my round.   Despite its wide range and great abundance, this moth has suffered a huge decline in numbers and I have hardly seen one since I was a long-haired, flares wearing student.  Like Chris Packham, it was the opportunity to interact with such a striking insect, which kept me interested in the natural world despite the competing interests of girls and beer.  As I write, I am teaching on a module (Ecological Entomology) of our MSc Entomology course http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology (incidentally the only one in the UK).  Having been reminded of the Garden Tiger by Chris Packham, I quickly substituted my population simulation modelling exercise on the Speckled Wood Butterfly, with one on the Garden Tiger.  After I had finished introducing the subject to the students, Kevin, a mature student said that it was collecting and rearing woolly bear caterpillars as a child that had led to him to be sitting in front of me now.  One of the other students, a recent graduate, piped up and asked “what is a woolly bear?  I have never heard of them”.   He was there because he had been inspired by his project supervisor.

I guess the point that I am trying to make, is that whilst Kevin and I were inspired to become entomologists by our childhood experiences, Craig had to wait until he was exposed to the wonder and awe of working with insects as an undergraduate.  So what’s the problem you may ask?  Both students have ended up in my class. There is a problem however; the last BSc in Entomology in the UK stopped running in 1995, there are no Entomology Departments in UK universities , there are as far as I can ascertain, very few academic entomologists who describe themselves as entomologists in their job title e.g. as Professor of Entomology.  As far as I know, there is only me, http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile.cfm?id=201220 and then there is Francis Ratnieks at Sussex who proudly describes himself as the UK’s only Professor of Apiculture http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/128567.  Others who I regard as mainstream entomologists are not described as such as in their job titles, e.g. Richard Wall at Bristol, Professor of Zoology; Jane Memmott also at Bristol,  Professor of Ecology; Bill Hughes at Sussex , Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Charles Godfray at Oxford (Hope Professor of Zoology) and the list goes on.  Even Mike Siva-Jothy who describes himself as an angry old entomologist on Twitter is just listed as Professor. Unlike arachnologists in Canada who are extremely rare organisms as outlined in Chris Buddles’ great blog article http://arthropodecology.com/2013/02/06/where-are-all-the-arachnologists-and-why-you-should-care/  we are still around in fairly respectable numbers.  We do, however, seem to be making it difficult for potential students to find and identify us.  The reasons for why I think this has happened will be the subject of another blog.  The point is, that if we are hard to find and identify, then the pool of potential future entomologists is going to become smaller as fewer and fewer undergraduates are exposed to basic entomological teaching and thus fewer and fewer entomologists will make it through to academia and our profile will become even lower and therefore even fewer students will be able to be inspired and so on and so on.  As a result, we too are likely to become as endangered as Canadian arachnologists.

So, if you are an academic who works mainly with insects and you are able to identify more species than just those you work on, then why not identify yourself in your job title as an entomologist and stand tall and proud and countable.

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Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog