13 January 2010

There are more species of insects on the planet than any other group.

While they are not everyone’s favorite topic, they fascinate UQ entomology lecturer with the School of Biological Sciences Dr David Merritt, who leads Entomology Curriculum Australia (ECA), a project making an education in entomology available to anyone, anywhere in Australia.

"Most people don't realise that insects have an enormous impact on the environment, human health, and world economies," Dr Merritt said.

"Insects are of direct importance to humans as pests, carriers of disease, pollinators, nutrient cyclers, sources of new bioactive compounds, and indicators of environmental change.

"Australia needs entomologists, and the way to provide well-trained specialists is to offer a curriculum that biology students can undertake from anywhere in Australia.

"The key has been to collaborate with other institutions to offer subjects in their area of scholarly expertise.

"There is a demand for entomologists: people who can identify insects and make informed decisions about their pest status and control. Entomologists are employed in biosecurity, quarantine (including border security), the integrated pest management industry, in pest control, and in universities and museums," Dr Merritt said.

From 2010, a set of four tertiary-level entomology subjects will go online, available in distance education format.

First off the rank is the subject, Insect Physiology, from UQ.

In second semester, Charles Sturt University will offer Integrated Pest Management and University of New England Insect-Plant Interactions.

In summer semester, UQ will offer the subject, Insect Identification (offered the year after at University of Adelaide).

The advantage of the subjects being offered by distance education is that a student enrolled at any one university can enrol in all four courses.

The subjects are geared toward students with a background in general biology enrolled in a Bachelor of Science or similar.

The subjects are also available to be taken for the purpose of professional development, for example, by biology teachers and people working in insect-related fields.

"The team has taken great pains to make the distance education experience an engaging and memorable experience for students," Dr Merritt said.

"We use mini-lectures that students can listen to and watch on their iPods. We have comprehensive websites for each subject where students can interact, view the mini-lectures, view interviews with experts and complete the learning activities.

"We want students to feel they are part of a learning community so we encourage them to form online discussion groups where they figure out ways of tackling a research project." In Insect Physiology, real data-sets are made available to students from a server at the host university and students analyse the data and report their findings.

President of the Australian Entomological Society Professor Jonathan Majer said a new generation of scientists were urgently needed to correctly identify and control insect populations.

"Without well-trained entomologists, we could potentially lose a third of our crop production," Professor Majer said.
"We would be ill-prepared to combat new diseases and pests which enter the country, and we will soon have insufficient taxonomists to identify and name the massive variety of insects that exist in Australia."

The project was made possible by a partnership between The University of Queensland, The University of Adelaide, The University of Western Australia and Charles Sturt University, supported by a grant from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

For more information on how to enrol in any of the ECA subjects, go to www.entomology.edu.au.

The website also has guides on how to identify different insects, insect-related news, featured research pages and resources for teachers and insect enthusiasts.

Media: Dr David Merritt (0422 009 387, d.merritt@uq.edu.au) or Tracey Franchi, Manager – Communications, Outreach and Performance Data in the School of Biological Sciences (3365 4831, t.franchi@uq.edu.au).