May, 2018 Discovery World Science Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
By Lindsay Maruszewski (Guest Blogger)
Can bonding with bugs inspire the next Einstein? Two entomologists think a half million dollars worth of insects should do the trick. Together, they are on the verge of realizing a dream 25 years in the making: a permanent center serving as a gateway to science exploration for curious youngsters.
In 1994, then entomology student, Antonio Gustin (Tony) had an idea to start a traveling live insect exhibit for kids. The problem was, he didn’t know how to do that. Fortunately, there were those that did and offered help. One of those was world-renowned insect collector, Dan Capps. Capps has, what was once, the world’s largest private insect collection. “I knew of him and that he traveled to exhibit his collection. I called him up and half expected him to be less than receptive. Some collectors can be… unapproachable, and this was “The Dan Capps.” But instead he invited me over for a beer. He showed me how to connect with schools and how to put together a brochure. He literally helped me get the Creepy Crawly Zoo show on the road.” said Gustin.
Twenty-five years later, Gustin and Capps are still friends. Gustin and his Creepy Crawly Zoo went on to travel the country for the next two decades and excited, inspired and terrified over a million kids – and parents. In 2007, he produced a pilot episode to a series called Tales from the Bug Whisperer, which received five international film festival awards. “The last 25 years have been an adventure to say the least.” Gustin, the ‘Bug Whisperer,’ said. “It’s crazy to me how kids I visited early on are now coming to my shows with their kids,”
After seeing the sparkle in hundreds of thousands of kids’ eyes while holding a scorpion or hearing the hiss of a cockroach, in 2017, Gustin decided to actively pursue an idea he had been developing for years – the creation of an insect-themed natural science park he calls, The Gateway Science Project. The idea is to use kids’ natural fascination and curiosity for insects as a gateway into science exploration. The project is an indoor insect and reptile zoo, where budding knowledge seekers can touch, feed, and interact with live animals. What separates it from other such endeavors is that it will have acres of botanically designed areas outdoors, with shallow ponds where kids can run, explore and catch bugs, frogs, tadpoles, turtles and just experience the natural world via play. A place where a kid will hear, “Here’s a net, here is a jar, now go explore and have fun!”
Gustin has created several videos on his website (www.creepycrawlyzoo.com) to explain the elaborate vision. It is a community science center that is designed to light a fire of scientific curiosity. There is one overall theme: “Here, we science.” At the Gateway Science Center, science is a verb, an attitude and a way of life. “It is the starship Enterprise, and all who visit are its crew!” laughs Gustin. Even the trails are based on the Fibonacci sequence. Gustin’s goal isn’t to get them interested in science as subjects but science as a way of thinking. “The very foundation of science is observation skills. Before kids go out to explore we tell them we need their help to find out what is here and what they are doing. Then kids do what kids do naturally, they play, they explore, and they ask questions. That my friends, is how science starts.”
“While insects are my tool of choice to connect with kids, my true love is science more broadly! There is a recurring theme from COSMOS that has always inspired me. When you look at the scientists who made the influential discoveries shaping our understanding of the universe and ourselves, most of them got their start when a single stranger inspired them to better themselves with science. While we are fortunate to now stand on the shoulders of their discoveries, these children could have easily missed this opportunity if it had not been for that nudge.”
“Whenever I do my show, I look at the excited faces before me. I often wonder to myself, which one of these little nosepickers is going to change the world because of what I do here today? Which one is the next Newton, Faraday, Einstein, Lamarr, Leavitt, Curie?” Gustin said.
Gustin has observed children’s reactions to and interactions with insects for decades. “Children are born scientists. They are naturally, insanely, curious about their world and over the last 25 years I’ve learned how perfect insects are to reach them. Insects are everywhere and affect everything. They are the most dominant life form on the planet. They are exciting, mysterious, alien and abundantly available to kids. Insects are almost every child’s first fascination with the natural world. No child has to do anything more than step outside to find them. Once they are introduced to them, curiosity and questions follow effortlessly. That is the very foundation of what science is – curiosity. Insects are so diverse in their form and functions that the questions kids ask about insects can lead to every science you can think of. Entomology IS a gateway science.” Gustin said.
Capps agrees. He agrees so wholeheartedly and thinks the concept is so powerful that he has offered to donate his collection, valued at nearly half a million dollars, to the Gateway Science Project!
When asked why he is donating his collection Capps said, “I have spent my entire life creating this collection. I was obsessed with insects when I was young. I was passionate about nature in general, but insects were the most fascinating thing to me. I did not amass this collection to horde specimens. I collected insects because I was passionate about them. I wanted to share my passion with the world. A lifetime of collecting and learning about all these fascinating creatures has led me to pay attention to my world in a way that would have never happened without them. I mean, what good would all this do if it just sat in my basement?”
“Tony and I met over 20 years ago when he had this idea to start a traveling live insect exhibit for kids. He was an entomology student in college and came to me for advice. What he did with that idea was amazing! Have you ever seen his show for kids? He lights them on fire! Our mutual passions have kept us friends ever since. It is my fondest wish that my collection be seen by the public. I can’t take it with me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Tony is out to create, but the Gateway Science Project is an unbelievably wonderful concept. A concept that I have personally witnessed in my own life. I wish something like this had been around when I was a kid. Entomology IS a gateway science and I can think of no better way for my collection to be used than to inspire generations of new scientists.”
When asked how he reacted to this, Gustin said, “I am absolutely beyond words. This was an act of faith in me that I am terrified to live up to. The Gateway Science Project just went from a dream to a full-blown reality with one selfless gesture. Now, I just need a Gateway Science facility to put it all in.”
The Capps exhibit was once one of the largest private collections in the world and can has been described as absolutely breathtaking. Capps himself, is a very unassuming retired mechanic from Oscar Meyer who enjoys riding his Harley (another of his passions). He only collected insects as a hobby. A hobby he started in 1958 at the ripe old age of …8. The young Capps developed a passionate fascination with insects. A passionate fascination that continues to this day and has led him to lead an extraordinary life.
That very simple childhood curiosity has led Capps all over the planet in pursuit of insects. His incredible expeditions have taken him to Australia, Cuba, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and Jamaica just to name a few. He is respected throughout the entomology community and has given hundreds of lectures. His vast collection has been featured at events all around the country, most notably Disney World’s Epcot Center, Chicago’s Museum of Science and industry, The Detroit Science Center and Purdue’s Bug Bowl. An interesting side note, Capps even holds a Guinness World’s Record for “cricket spitting” and discovered himself on a Trivial Pursuit card because of it.
So, what do two friends who share a mutual childhood passion do when they grow up? They join forces to light the world on fire and inspire new generations of scientists to find their passion! While the Gateway Science Project is still a project in the making, there is no better place for kids to science than Discovery World Children’s Science Center, in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Tony’s Creepy Crawly Zoo and Discovery World have had a long-standing partnership and share a mutual mission of inspiring kids to science. On May 12th, 2018 that is exactly where Gustin and Capps will be, exhibiting together, for the first time in 25 years! “I am absolutely thrilled that Dan will be joining me at Discovery World. In all my years of doing this show, I have never ever seen anything like his collection. It is not just some pinned specimens; Dan’s collection is a work of art! It is the culmination of a lifelong passion for entomology. Milwaukee is in for a really awesome experience.” Gustin exclaimed.
For more information about the Gateway Science Project and Discovery World shows, visit: www.creepycrawlyzoo.com!