University Of Florida Cyberbugs Teach Students About Entomology

Cindy Spence

John Zenger

GAINESVILLE—If you think you’ve got bugs in your computer, try logging into the University of Florida’s 4-H Bug Club.

With a few keystrokes, bugs are virtually coming at you from the computer screen. Virtual is the key word here, because these are cyberbugs for a cyberclub.

Bugmaster John Zenger, a professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says kids, bugs and cyberspace make a good mix.

“This appeals to today’s youth, who are used to multimedia glitz and color,” Zenger said. “More and more, children have access to the World Wide Web and can join online activities.

“And kids like bugs,” Zenger adds. “They only develop an aversion to insects after exposure to grown-ups’ ‘icky bugs’ prejudices.”

The club is a little different for the 4-H program. “Meetings” are conducted via the Internet, and kids can get into the “clubhouse” via any computer with online capability. On the agenda: learning.

“Insects are an important part of the ecosystem and the natural environment,” Zenger said. “Insects impact us in numerous ways, far more than you might imagine: the food we eat, clothes we wear, whether we have a picnic.”

The Bug Club started as a way to reach children throughout the state who might be interested in entomology. It’s also a way to distribute educational materials to youths and teachers who can use them in the classroom.

The club has expanded to 50 members since it began in the spring. Despite national interest, membership currently is limited to children in Florida so that UF faculty and graduate students can interact with them personally. Online activities are divided into three categories — beginning, intermediate and advanced — so students can build on their knowledge and move on to new challenges.

“This is bug central for the youth that find it,” Zenger said. “They can go from here to a number of entomology-related sites, because we’re linked to a number of reSources.”

Zenger hopes the cyberclub will get kids chatting and inspire them to form real clubs with real meetings in their counties. He envisions clubs meeting for quiz bowls, field trips and insect collection contests. The cyberclub also should boost participation in UF’s annual Bug Camp, where kids learn even more about bugs, such as which are edible and how to cook them.

“We’d like clubs to form with local leaders so the children can go out in the field,” Zenger said. “After all, there is a limit to the Internet when it comes to bugs.”

For 10-year-old Kira Carver, who wanted to learn about bugs without getting up close and personal, the cyberclub was just fine.

Kira, a fifth-grader, tapped on a keyboard and the club’s site popped up on her screen with “Welcome to the Florida 4-H Bug Club.” The nickname she wanted — Butterfly — was already taken, so she adapted her choice to Monarch Butterfly. In the chat room, she was joined By Earthworm Joe, Bugster and 4-H Dude.

While Kira may not be thinking about career goals right now, Zenger says capitalizing on kids’ early interest in insects is good for entomology.

“Entomology can be a great career,” Zenger said. “There are a lot of entomology-related jobs out there.”

Among the future ideas for the club are translating the site into Spanish and creating a place where kids can ask questions and have them answered By UF faculty and graduate students.

A virtual laboratory and a virtual trail walk, both interactive, also are in the works. In the virtual lab, a student could zoom in on a counter where an experiment is going on and learn more about it. On the trail walk, a student could zoom in on a log or tree and look at the insects there and get information on them.

“This will be more labor-intensive, but it should increase participation and allow even more education to take place,” Zenger said. “We’re testing it right now.

“No pun intended,” Zenger said, “but we’re still trying to get the bugs out.”

Anyone who wants to see the cyberbugs can do so at