Researchers' Night: Teaching children, exchanging research, and...eating bugs?

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Gerlinde de Deyn
Netherlands Institute of Ecology
Wageningen University

(Left: Dr. Gerlinde De Deyn helping school children look for similarities and differences between springtail species using magnified pictures.  Of course the students verified for themselves whether the living animals really looked like this.)

On September 27 the European Commission organized Researchers’ Night in 300 cities across Europe.  At the events a wide variety of fun-learning activities were offered to the visiting public.  If you missed it, don’t worry; Researchers’ Night is a yearly event!  Dr. Gerlinde De Deyn had the opportunity to show off the world of soil biodiversity at the event in Brussels.  Here are her thoughts on the event.

I do hope you all found your way to a great event in one of the 300 cities across Europe to hear, see, smell and taste all the excitement science has to offer; I think it was especially fun for the general public!

As a Marie Curie fellow I was in the fortunate position to be a stand holder in Brussels at the central location (yes in Brussels, there were even multiple locations with activities!) in the Sint-Gorikshallen/Les Halles Saint-Géry, close to the Grote Markt/Grand Place.

It was a bit of a logistical challenge to get all the tools from Wageningen University (The Netherlands) where I work to Brussels city.  Luckily I am Belgian and have very nice, strong and interested nephews who were happy to help me out with building up our stand.

(Left: Gerlinde’s nephews helped out at the Soil Biodiversity stand in Brussels, EU Researchers’ night 2013)

How exciting to guide crowds of school children in French and Dutch through the wonderful world of soil organisms and what they do for us!  I took along several species of living beasties and magnifying glasses so that visitors could verify for themselves that these tiny animals were alive, jumping around, all small, yet different in appearance. 

The microscope proved to be an even more appealing tool than the magnifying glasses.  They acted as a magnet for the youngsters.  Good to start the introduction of looking at soil nematodes with a word of how to handle a microscope with care (no worries, all went fine).

(Right: Outreach in action, not all roots are the same, not all soil organisms either!  People could take a closer look on the spot using magnifying tools.  Note also the image on the laptop screen showing a springtail on its back, which nicely revealed the springtail’s spring structure (furcula).)

There was way too much to explain of course, given the overwhelming biodiversity in soil.  Luckily I had copies of the European Soil Biodiversity Atlas with me to offer to the teachers and interested people from various professions.  The Atlas was very well received and I trust it will be used, although some people would have preferred a French rather than English copy.

(Left: The Atlas can be downloaded from the website.)

At the expo there was a great number of other interesting stands, amongst which there were insect tastings (dead or alive from the perspective of the insects), studying fungi and yeasts from the national culture collection, lessons in the sex-life of snails, and so on.

There was everything from nematodes and springtails to crickets, grasshoppers, click beetle larvae and little critters alike.  It’s not surprising that it did not take long before Peter de Batist - the man at the expo promoting the eating of insects - and I were exchanging research experiences and promotion material.  I have to admit my nephews ate the insects (dead and alive), and as a vegetarian I am still wondering when to try my first insects. 


(Right: Spot the European Soil Biodiversity Atlas at our colleague’s insect (insect-eating) stand.)

You may wonder, what is my main drive of participating in events like this?  My main reasons:

  • I like to give people - of all ages - the opportunity to discover a whole new world, a world hidden because of the small size of the inhabitants, yet so nearby and important to all life on earth!  I still remember the feeling when I first discovered this hidden world decades ago.  In the meantime I have learned a lot, but many mysteries out/down there remain to be solved.  There will be exciting times for many years to come!
  • You are bound not only to meet an interested public but also many other scientists, passionate about their own research, yet with an open mind for other people’s research too.