CORVALLIS - What can cartoons teach us about entomology and society? Plenty, according to Michael Burgett, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University. Burgett uses Gary Larson cartoons to explore the far side of the relationship between people and insects.
"Far Side Entomology," the course Burgett created for OSU's Honors College, will be featured this week (Tuesday, Jan. 4) on National Public Radio in a series on cool college classes. The cool colleges in the series include Harvard, Julliard, the Colorado School of Mines and Oregon State.
Interactions between humans and insects can vary from humorous to deadly serious, according to Burgett. The former OSU Extension entomologist uses cartoons to introduce his students to the biology of insects and to explore the relevance of insects to human activities.
A cartoon of a fully engorged mosquito ready to explode led two students to research other gluttonous bloodsuckers, including vampires in literature and history.
A cartoon of Jiminy Cricket floating in a collector's specimen jar led another pair of students to critically examine the role of conscience in ethical questions of right and wrong.
A cartoon of Spiderman commiserating with DungBeetleman led to an exploration of superheroes and recycling in modern culture.
Along the way, students learned about culicids (mosquitos), orthoptera (crickets), scarabs (dung beetles), pests, plagues and politics.
"The anthropomorphism in the cartoons makes an immediate connection between insects and people," Burgett said. "Students take those connections farther, connecting to ideas and relationships they wouldn't have imagined in a straight systematics course."
Burgett's unconventional approach to cultural entomology, which caught the attention of NPR producers, has connected students to the far side of entomology since the mid-1980s.
For a close-up of the cool college class, "Far Side Entomology," check the NPR website at http://www.npr.org.