Invertebrate diversity makes up at least 95% of the world’s entire biodiversity. While the earth holds about 8 billion people, estimates suggest abundances of ants alone likely reach 10,000 trillion. Despite their numerical dominance and incredible range of diversity, many people fail to name an invertebrate when prompted for the name of an animal. What many might call “vertebrate bias” clearly exists and it remains critical for the next generation of biologists to understand the contributions that invertebrates make to the world, positive or negative.

Since first teaching “Invertebrate Biology” at Southwestern University in 2004, Dr. Romi Burks, Professor of Biology, soon realized that covering the content knowledge of invertebrates in a single semester posed an impossible task. Shifting the focus to the ecology and function of invertebrates in the larger world of biological research helped give the course an applied bent. The diversity of classes that the Biology Department offers only permits Invertebrate Ecology to occur once every 2-4 years and the biological understanding of invertebrates rapidly changes. Consequently, each iteration of Invertebrate Ecology takes on its own emphasis.

The lab aspect of the course allowed students to participate in course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs. In 2017, students learned how to barcode using molecular tools and helped identify apple snails from South America that made up some of the research of Dr. Burks. Over the past two years, the social side effects of covid-19 unfortunately put a damper on experiential learning in college biology classes. After being constrained by the pandemic, a high campus wide vaccination rate provided the opportunity for the 2022 Invertebrate Ecology class to get out of the lab and back to the field.

Many of our students at Southwestern wish to pursue careers associated with health care. One might initially ask “what do invertebrates have to do with medicine?” Yet, students quickly learn that some invertebrates cause disease, others serve as intermediate hosts for other pathogens, and others provide the secrets to a better life. Students already tuned into the ecology and evolutionary side of biology may have been “bit” by the field bug early and may eventually work to conserve key invertebrate species, be it bees, butterflies or the endangered cave invertebrates that inhabit Williamson County. When learning about the evolutionary rise of invertebrates, students encounter the number of ways in which invertebrates serve as important research models. For example, marine sponges contain a plethora of chemicals that provide a basis for developing pain and cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals. Cephalopods, such as octopi, recently received recognition as sentient beings by the United Kingdom, and serve as models to study learning and intelligence.

However, classroom learning, whether in “lecture” or “lab.” still comes with its pedagogical limits. Consider the adages - “learning by doing” and “seeing is believing” as descriptors for the power of experiential learning. Getting out in the field - literally into the habitats - or through excursions to varied places that focus on invertebrates gives biology students exposure to additional career options as well as a simple increased recognition of the consequences of vertebrate bias.

The gallery above provides just a snapshot of the student experiences during Invertebrate Ecology. The 2022 Invertebrate Ecology class benefitted greatly from the participation of these students: Nick Bailey, Katherine Montgomery, Gabby Garza, Cooper Phillips, Scout Gockle, Princess Roberts, Nicholas Hoisington, Maysen Hauck and Ashton Bynum. Actual field sampling ranged from sampling our local San Gabriel River to discover a diversity of aquatic invertebrates to collecting water to search for environmental DNA of apple snails and then traveling to the Texas Coast to create a representative sample of marine invertebrates.

The students and Dr. Burks also thank all the professional staff associated with BeeWeaver Farms, Texas A&M Biodiversity Collection, Texas A&M Entomology Collections and the UT Brackenridge Field Station. Dr. Ivy Jones of Texas A&M Corpus Christy advised on field sites around Port Aransas and the Meridian Homeowners Associated provided access to an Austin pond infested with apple snails. Personal chef Vicki Comisso (coincidentally the mom of Dr. Burks) provided a great weekend of food during our trip to the Texas Coast. In addition, Christy Schaller helped support the class logistics and the Department of Biology provided extensive additional funds to subsidize the costs of the excursions.

A couple of comments from the student course evaluated attested to the success of this pedagogical approach including:

“The field trip based learning was absolutely phenomenal and really helped us understand what we were discussing in class. Brought a new aspect to learning that I had not had the opportunity to experience beforehand.”

“I think the field trips were really the most creative way of learning I have experienced in college. By going on these adventures, I feel like I learned more than I would in a classroom environment.”

The pandemic undoubtedly changed the landscape of higher education, including biology. On the positive side, Burks thinks that the imposed limits made getting out in the field and “bee-ing” a biologist that much more memorable.