In­va­sive bug fo­cuses teens on science, math

Muh­len­berg pro­gram en­gages high school­ers in hands-on learn­ing

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Michelle Mer­lin

Some­times, spot­ted lantern­flies aren’t just for squish­ing.

They can be tools for teach­ing stu­dents about science and math.

That’s how Muh­len­berg Col­lege pro­fes­sors are us­ing the in­va­sive in­sects in a pro­gram de­signed for area high school stu­dents. The pro­gram, SLIME (Spot­ted Lanternfly In­ves­ti­gated through Math­e­mat­i­cal and En­vi­ron­men­tal sciences), started this spring and is funded for two years through a $48,000 grant from the Harry C. Trexler Trust.

On pa­per, the Muh­len­berg Col­lege pro­gram might look like it’s de­signed to con­trib­ute to a lean but grow­ing body of re­search aimed at re­duc­ing the spot­ted lanternfly pop­u­la­tion. But its pri­mary pur­pose is to en­gage area stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly of un­der­rep­re­sented groups, in science and math in a col­le­giate set­ting.

“Be­ing in that col­lege envi

ron­ment is a whole new ex­pe­ri­ence for them, and it gives them the sense they’re be­ing taken se­ri­ously,” said Eu­gene Fior­ini, who teaches in Muh­len­berg Col­lege’s math­e­mat­ics and com­puter science depart­ment and runs the pro­gram. “They get a say in what we pur­sue, what we study. We’re al­ways ask­ing them, ‘What do you think?’”

Since the spring, about 20 stu­dents have come to the Muh­len­berg cam­pus ev­ery other Satur­day to study spot­ted lantern­flies. They cat­a­log the in­va­sive bugs’ di­men­sions, note what types of plants they feed on, cap­ture them and mark them with white­out.

They also learn about col­lege life, talk about col­lege es­says and get tips on tak­ing the SATs.

Re­searchers are try­ing to learn more about the bug, which ar­rived in Berks County from Asia in 2012 and has spread out­ward since then. Spot­ted lantern­flies are known for dam­ag­ing trees, grapevines and other agri­cul­tural goods by feed­ing on them and ex­cret­ing a sticky sub­stance that leads to mold.

In the Muh­len­berg pro­gram, Fior­ini con­nects stu­dents’ field work to math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tions that can help them cal­cu­late things like pop­u­la­tion size.

Leah Moll, a 15-year-old stu­dent at Al­len­town School District’s Build­ing 21, said stu­dents ob­served the black and white spot­ted lanternfly nymphs clus­ter around berry bushes. When the bugs got to be adults, they swarmed to honey­suckle.

Stu­dents set about cre­at­ing a bet­ter trap for lantern­flies than the sticky tape that’s used. The bands, which are wrapped around trees, have come un­der fire for also cap­tur­ing squir­rels, birds and other un­in­tended crea­tures. The stu­dents’ traps didn’t quite work.

But they weren’t dis­cour­aged. They’ve con­tin­ued to cap­ture, doc­u­ment and mark lantern­flies to learn more about them.

Shavon Smith, a se­nior at Dieruff High School, said the pro­ject is more hands-on than a typ­i­cal class­room science ex­per­i­ment.

There’s also more one-on-one time with in­struc­tors than in high school, he said, and stu­dents are en­cour­aged to come up with their own ideas.

“Their goal is to al­low us to think out­side the box and come up with our own plans and strate­gies for how we can col­lect data and con­duct ex­per­i­ments,” Smith said.

The high school stu­dents also work with un­der­grad­u­ate men­tors, so they get a taste of what col­lege is like. They ask about life af­ter high school, and pep­per the men­tors with ques­tions, such as what it’s like to live in a dorm.

Fior­ini said they also start to write col­lege es­says, and on Satur­day did some SAT prep.

Moll was in­trigued by the dif­fer­ence be­tween the science lab in her high school and the labs at Muh­len­berg. She also hadn’t re­al­ized that in col­lege, classes can take place in dif­fer­ent build­ings, in­stead of just in dif­fer­ent class­rooms.

She en­joys study­ing a bug that few know about.

“I feel like it gets you a step ahead of ev­ery­one else,” she said. “It’s re­ally cool that you can share it with other peo­ple.”

La­trice Wil­liamson, a 16-yearold stu­dent at Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­u­ca­tion Academy Char­ter School, wants to be a pe­di­atric nurse. Through the pro­gram, she’s learned more about schools that of­fer nurs­ing pro­grams and mas­ter’s de­grees. She also wants to travel and has learned about the op­tions for study­ing abroad.

She’s also learn­ing about lantern­flies, and how math fits in to the science they’re ap­ply­ing.

“It’s the best pro­gram be­cause it’s ed­u­ca­tional and you get to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing in­ter­est­ing that just came from nowhere,” she said.

The pro­gram runs through Nov. 2 this year. Any­one in­ter­ested in sign­ing up can con­tact Fior­ini at eu­gene­fior­[email protected]­len­berg.edu.

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