SF youngsters get up close and personal with exotic insects 

click to enlarge Children at Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco interact with various insects as part of a program run by the Save Nature organization. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Children at Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco interact with various insects as part of a program run by the Save Nature organization.
First-grade student Asia Walley stared down in wonder at a darkling beetle squirming in her hand.

“It feels tickly,” the 6-year-old said with a giggle, her eyes glued to the insect. The beetle — a creature located throughout the U.S., including in San Francisco — was one of seven insects shared with 21 students at Rosa Parks Elementary School on Tuesday morning as part of an Insect Discovery Lab program that brings creatures from all over the world into classrooms.

“It’s really trying to get [students] excited about making a connection to nature, and getting them outside — learning something indoors that takes them outdoors,” said Norman Gershenz, director of SaveNature.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that presents more than 800 Insect Discovery Lab programs annually in Bay Area schools.

The programs range from classroom visits to birthday parties to events at the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium. At each presentation, Gershenz or another educator offer the opportunity to hold, touch or examine a variety of creepy-crawly creatures.

In addition to the exhilaration of seeing a giant African millipede or whip scorpion, it is Gershenz’s passion for wildlife that truly captivates his audience. Even dissecting owl pellets — one of the programs offered by the nonprofit — is life-changing, he said.

Tuesday’s class was no exception.

“We’re going to pretend that we’re going to the rainforest,” Gershenz said to the first-grade students as they gathered in a circle on the floor. “Let’s put on our rubber boots and turn on the flashlights on our head.”

The youngsters inched forward and squealed in delight as Gershenz pulled out a plastic container holding an eastern lubber grasshopper that is typically found in the Florida everglades.

“Look for four special colors,” Gershenz instructed the students as he circled the room, holding up the grasshopper. Students identified red, yellow, orange and black — the same colors on a traffic light or stop sign — which the insect uses to deter predators.

He noted the insect “does not need to jump, it does not need to fly” because of its warning colors.

Six-year-old Aron Dominguez quickly became acquainted with another insect: a bright-green giant thorny phasmid from Malaysia.

“It’s spiky!” the first-grader exclaimed as he stroked the creature’s wings.

One insect that Dominguez and several other students initially avoided was the giant African millipede, a long black bug with 240 legs. But at Gershenz’s gentle urging, the youngsters ultimately extended a finger onto the creature.

“To bring the entire world to them and to see it in their hands is so powerful and can really open their minds to what the rest of the world is like outside of our neighborhood,” said Emily Geiges, a teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary who previously worked as an education specialist at SaveNature.org.

Beginning in the 2012-13 school year, the nonprofit expanded to offer after-school and summer courses through its Nature Connection program with the help of $150,000 in funding from The City.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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