ISU researchers aim to boost science education with summertime pest

Moulton elementary students working in the classroom

Iowa State researchers will train students at Moulton and King elementary schools to track mosquito populations in their neighborhood. File photo by Christopher Gannon

AMES, Iowa – It may be hard to imagine how a mosquito could inspire students to develop an interest in science. Iowa State University researchers believe it’s not only possible, but say that generating student interest in the pesky insect will improve science learning and public health.

The ISU research team received a $1.25 million National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award that it will use to get ISU 4U Promise students and teachers involved with mosquito research and surveillance. Gale Seiler, an associate professor of education and ISU 4U Promise collaborator, admits it’s an unusual concept. However, she says a different approach is needed to overcome the educational disparities low-income students and students of color face.

“As long as we keep teaching science in the same ways, some students will be successful, but many, many more students are not going to see that success,” Seiler said. “We know that large proportions of our population, particularly students of color and low-income, are being left out and marginalized. We really believe this is one way to interrupt that cycle.”

Seiler is working with Katherine Richardson Bruna, director of ISU 4U Promise; and Lyric Bartholomay, a University of Wisconsin-Madison entomologist with a joint appointment at Iowa State, on the five-year project. The goal is to spark interest through authentic research and help students see themselves as future scientists.

Fourth and fifth graders at King and Moulton elementary schools in Des Moines will learn to identify different types of mosquitoes, build traps to collect and monitor the insects in their neighborhoods and (with the help of their teachers) document their research in a statewide mosquito surveillance database. Seiler says when students are engaged in authentic science they’re more motivated, as opposed to learning from a book or handout.  

“When they see science as connected to their lives, their community and their experiences, they start to see science in a new way. They start to see themselves as someone who could contribute to science, and that is vital for students who are underrepresented in science and in university,” Seiler said. “That’s the basic premise of the Next Generation Science Standards, which were just adopted by the state of Iowa. Science should be more authentic and students should be involved in inquiry-based science learning.”

ISU education students to contribute and benefit

The research project has the same goal as the ISU 4U Promise program – to support student learning so that they are prepared for college. Seiler says the grant will allow all the stakeholders to contribute and benefit from the project. Iowa State will provide professional development for King and Moulton teachers and community educators and preparation for Iowa State education students who complete their practica and student teaching at the schools.

ISU students will take a course to learn about insects as well as teaching methods that include community-based inquiry and culturally responsive teaching practices. This will help researchers better prepare education students to teach in underserved communities and to connect with community issues through their teaching, Seiler said. In return, these pre-service teachers can be a valuable resource in the classroom.  

“If our student teachers are well-prepared to teach authentic, inquiry- and community-based science, that has the power to be transformative in terms of science teaching and learning in that school,” Seiler said.  

Public health benefit

The research is also aimed at assessing and responding to health issues linked to mosquitoes in low-income neighborhoods. Seiler says there are a lot of misconceptions about mosquito-transmitted illnesses that can have a negative impact on public health. Research in other urban communities has shown people spend less time outdoors because of fear of mosquitoes.

“For example, just getting exercise during the summer often drops off, because people will not go for a walk outside for fear of being bitten by a mosquito,” Seiler said. “There are misconceptions about mosquitoes; for example, the idea that every mosquito carries a disease. Yes, they’re annoying little things that buzz around us, but not something to fear.”

Through the project, Iowa State researchers want to determine if teaching students and community members about mosquitoes and disease will eliminate that fear. As part of their surveillance, King and Moulton students will map where the insects are most prevalent and share this information with the community. Seiler says making students the “experts” will also demonstrate how they can play a role in public health, and that science can happen outside a laboratory.