Invasive bug focuses teens on science, math
Muhlenberg program engages high schoolers in hands-on learning
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.