Getting the Bugs Out

By Theresa Johnston — January 01, 2003 9 min read
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The Smithsonian O. Orkin Insect Safari is the latest educational exhibit to hit the road.

No permission slips have been passed out, no chaperones have been rounded up. Yet the 1,017 students who attend Union House Elementary School in Sacramento, California, are about to spend part of this bright fall day visiting the Smithsonian Institution’s entomological exhibit. And they won’t even have to leave campus: The “Insect Safari,” a traveling show sponsored by Orkin Pest Control, has come to town.

In the parking lot, five young people dressed in matching black shirts and khaki shorts—the exhibit’s “safari guides"—are buzzing around a gigantic blue truck like worker bees in a hive. One puts up a tent and sets out wire baskets filled with four-inch Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Others wipe little fingerprints off the truck’s colorful hands-on displays and pump up the giant inflatable praying mantis perched atop the truck’s roof. By the time school starts at 8 this morning, most of the kids have caught a glimpse of the 18- wheel vehicle on their way into the building and are bug-eyed with anticipation.

The truck, currently on a one-year, 70 city tour, will spend two days in this multicultural suburban community, introducing students from two area elementary schools to entomology through its interactive exhibits and live insect specimens. Today, every class from kindergarten through 6th grade at Union Elementary is scheduled for a 40-minute visit; the same tour is scaled up or down in language and approach depending on grade level. The first order of business for a group of 2nd and 3rd graders is taking pictures—each child gets a class photo and activity workbook to take home to mom and dad. Then safari guide Andy Wambach herds them into the first of the truck’s five exhibit rooms and has them sit cross-legged on the floor. Standing beside a multifaceted model of an insect eye as big as a garbage can lid, he peppers the kids with questions: “Do you think insects have noses or ears like we do?” he asks. “No!” the children shout back, giggling. “What about their mouths? Do they have mouths like ours?” “No!” comes the reply. Wambach explains that while insects do have sensory organs, they’re very different from those of humans.

Later, Wambach shows the children a preserved African dung beetle (“Ewwwww!”) and plays a short cartoon about the different foods insects eat. Then he and the kids crawl like ants—past a giant woven-wire spider web and under a big plastic termite mound—into the truck’s last room, a space designed to look like a bug-infested parlor. (His message: Insects are an important part of the natural environment, but inside your house, they’re gross.) The final stop is the outdoor insect-petting tent, home of the giant hissing cockroaches. These are the only live bugs on display today. Since it’s difficult to keep delicate insects alive on a road trip, at each venue the guides arrange to “borrow” exotic specimens from local stores and university labs. Unfortunately, the entomologist who promised to bring more has failed to show.

Still, the cockroaches make quite an impression. Squealing with delight and revulsion, the children crowd around the green cloth-covered table, hoping to get a better look at the leathery, prehistoric-looking creatures. Rachel, a 3rd grader with silver hoop earrings, at first is hesitant to touch the bugs. Then she gamely holds out her hand and lets one of the leggy critters hop on. “It feels like a fly or something!” she announces to her dubious friends. “It tickles.”

In all, it’s a rather hurried presentation. Yet Smithsonian follow-up surveys show that kids do retain some of what they’ve learned about insects. Rachel’s teacher, for one, is impressed. “I absolutely loved it,” Christine Harbison-Ricken whispers later in her classroom while her students scribble paragraphs about the insects they’ve seen. “It was very well set up,and I thought the pacing was beautifully done.With 3rd graders, even 20 minutes can be valuable.” Plus, she sighs, “This is so much easier than going on a field trip.”

Corporations have used colorful vehicles at state fairs, concerts, and sporting events to instill brand consciousness for beer and hot dogs at least since the invention of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Brand-sponsored “field trip trucks” rolling into school parking lots is a relatively new phenomenon, however, says Robert Lewis, president of the Atlanta- based Mobile Media Enterprises, a marketing company that specializes in such programs. His research shows that sponsors love having their logos linked with educational tours—not to mention the free coverage they get on local television— while teachers like the convenience of hassle-free field trips.

“I’d estimate that about 10 to 15 percent of our business now involves going to schools as a component of our mobile marketing strategies,” Lewis notes. “As long as the message is curriculum-based, and so long as the branding is not overhyped, schools like the visits. We call them ‘field trips at the front door.’”

Increasing concerns about student safety have made traditional field trips less attractive.

Mobile Media’s first foray into educational mobile marketing was a 1998 GTE-sponsored tour bus specially outfitted with computers to teach students and faculty how to do Internet research. Today, Lewis estimates, there are about a dozen corporate-sponsored educational vehicles—ranging from small vans and buses to18-wheelers—chugging across the country. Last October, for example, Scholastic Books and Home Depot teamed up to sponsor the Declaration of Independence Road Trip, a three-and-a-half-year tour spotlighting an original copy of “America’s birth certificate” printed on the night of July 4, 1776. And Lowe’s, another home improvement retailer, reports that 300,000 children have visited its Great Safety Adventure truck, a 1,200-square-foot simulated house that teaches kids how to avoid burns, slips, and choking hazards.

Orkin came up with the idea for the Insect Safari as a way to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Ten years ago, the company funded a major renovation of the insect zoo at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., enabling the organization to place specimens in bigger cases that mimic their natural habitats and to add interactive components to the exhibits. Today, the bug rooms are among the most popular attractions on the National Mall.

For insect zoo manager Nathan Erwin, the road show felt like a natural extension of the relationship. “This was a unique opportunity,” he says of Orkin’s offer to fund a national tour. “One of the goals of the Smithsonian’s current administration is to try to get as much as possible off the Mall, whether through the Internet or traveling exhibits.” As for any underlying marketing goals on Orkin’s part, he says with a shrug: “At any museum these days, you’re going to see signs reading ‘Ford Motor Company Gallery’ or ‘This room courtesy of Johnson & Johnson.’ That’s just part of the museum world.”

While there are a few other natural history museums that send small “bugmobiles” to local schools, the $2.3 million per year that Orkin supplies to underwrite the Smithsonian project allows the mobile classroom to roam far and wide. During its first 10-month tour, which began in February 2001, the 53-foot safari truck stopped at schools, children’s zoos, and museums in 118 cities, beginning on the East Coast, going all the way to California and then back again. Last year, Orkin scaled back the program to a more manageable number of cities so that the five young safari staffers could have a little more time to rest, see the sights, and catch up on their laundry. The exhibit has enough funding to keep on trucking for the next three years, stopping at schools along a defined route as teachers request visits.

Peter Magnuson, spokesman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says that increasing concerns about student safety have made traditional field trips less attractive. “There’s a lot to be said for getting kids out into museums,” he says, “but especially around Washington, D.C., with the sniper [this past fall] and 9/11, these traveling exhibits probably have more appeal now than they might have had in the past.” He notes, for example, that many D.C.-area schools used to go to local farms to pick pumpkins for Halloween, but this year the farms brought the pumpkins to the kids.

Educators are also increasingly nervous about spending time away from class for “extras” like field trips, he adds. “With new national legislation and the whole focus on testing,” he says, “a lot of schools are looking at things like recess and PE and art— activities that aren’t necessarily tested—and trying to determine if they are valuable. Field trips are probably on that list, too.”

Jennifer Buchanan, a former psychology major and social worker, has been on the road with the safari since the tour’s inception. Like all the guides, the green-eyed 30-year-old was hired by GMR Marketing Inc., the Wisconsin-based agency that runs the Insect Safari for Orkin, more for her communication skills and rapport with kids than any formal teaching experience. Her knowledge of insects comes mostly from a weeklong training session at the Smithsonian, taught by zoo manager Erwin, that covered bug basics as well as tips for working with the public. “This job is pretty ideal for people who are just out of college and don’t want to settle down and start an office career just yet,” she explains during a break. “For me, personally, growing up in Pennsylvania and going to college there, I really wanted the opportunity to see other parts of the country. The Insect Safari has allowed me to do that.”

The safari guides see themselves more as museum docents on the move than traditional teachers.

The safari guides see themselves more as museum docents on the move than traditional teachers. “It’s like being at Disney World,” 24-year-old Nick Canzano says, laughing. “There’s nothing better than when I walk out of that truck in the morning with my bottle of Windex, and everything is set up, and the kids are running up saying, ‘Whoa! Do we get to go in there?’” Wambach, his former college roommate, nods, saying, “We don’t just teach the kids about insects. We’ll go to lunch with them in the cafeteria and play basketball at recess.”

Still, the guides have mastered a very teacherlike skill: on-the-spot problem-solving. Unlike leading a tour in the controlled environment of a museum, there are plenty of opportunities for mishaps during a road trip. Sometimes, the crew will pull up to a school in the morning, only to find that the parking lot is way too small for the truck. Once, a frightened youngster accidentally dropped a fragile millipede in the petting tent and squished it. Another time, a poisonous tropical centipede got loose from its fingerproof viewing container and scurried into the truck’s generator room. (Luckily, the vehicle was near its home base at the time, and a Smithsonian insect zoo staffer was able to come over and fish out the tiny critter.)

In March 2001, the safari truck pulled into New Orleans, and schoolchildren handed the guides a giant gift basket filled with Southern sweets and hot sauces. Canzano was so touched by that gesture and others, he says, he might go back to school someday and become a real teacher.

Not just yet, though. “I don’t know if I’d want to be at a blackboard,” he says, sitting on the curb next to his unusual mobile classroom. “I like having the kids come out to me. I remember when I was a little kid, I thought field trips were the coolest.”

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