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New activities, new curriculum prepared for NMSU department

Creepy crawlers, giant worms and spiders will be making an appearance at New Mexico State University's Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Weed Science department beginning this fall with a pest-theme movie night for high school students as part of Department Head Gerald Sims' initiative to focus on better serving students and the community.

Man watches educational video.
Gerald Sims, head of New Mexico State University's Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science Department, watches "What is an Entomologist," a humorous video created by EPPWS to describe the different fields in biology and potential employment. (Photo by Angela Simental)

Although some plans and activities are still in progress, Sims said one of his immediate goals is to increase interactions with elementary, middle and high schools.

The reason behind this new idea is not only to spot potential students, but also to teach them about the environment and what EPPWS has to offer.

"We want to be part of life-long learning. We want kids to learn and be aware of these topics early on," he explained. "Students will be better prepared, when they become adults, to contribute to discussions about the environment as they begin to understand the breadth of our relationship with it. Teaching students about how we manage ecosystems also shows them that there are many ways to apply their interests in biology."

Sims and EPPWS faculty are working together to come up with a list of movies and discussions about the importance of insects, weeds and plant pathogens.

Along with discussing scientific topics and research, Sims said the movie night will also serve as a platform to speak to potential students about the different areas in the department and scholarships available.

Sims, who began his term as department head in October 2012, came from the University of Illinois, where he said movie nights are a community tradition, and he wishes to make it a tradition at NMSU as well.

"It will be challenging because there is no history of these types of events here," Sims said. "It will take a while for it to work."

What has proven to be a popular educational activity for local students is the Arthropod museum, which boasts a collection of more than 150,000 arthropods, including spiders, leafhoppers and grasshoppers. This year's insect expos drew about 1,200 children.

EPPWS is also involved in other events hosted at NMSU, particularly in the entomology contests for both FAA and 4-H, serving as judges and hosts as well as providing scholarships to the winners.

Having worked 20 years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as serving 28 years in academia, Sims said that collaboration among the three fields of study in one department is a rare, but beneficial organization in a university setting for both students and community outreach purposes.

"Combining pest disciplines into one department is actually unusual. That model gives organizations more ability to solve complex problems, which is why it is used at USDA and private companies. The interaction is key and that's a huge asset we have. We have all these relevant disciplines in one spot," Sims said.

Several issues require a variety of expertise to solve problems, and that's when group effort comes in handy.

"It is beneficial having all these disciplines together as far as research being done because we are able to find solutions," he added. "For example the curly top virus, which affects chile, is transmitted by a leafhopper whose primary host is a weed. With this one disease, several disciplines are involved. We deployed a team of faculty - entomologists, plant pathologists and weed scientists - to figure out the solution."

Another important part of this collaboration is that Sims and the faculty are developing a long-term plan to address the needs of students by updating the curriculum, offering new courses and determining the direction research should take in the next five years.

"We have a complex situation because one group of our students is interested in the core disciplines of our department while another portion is interested in the pre-professional program where we prepare them for med school or dental school. We have to learn what skills each group of students will need in the future to know which courses we need to offer," he said.

The EPPWS department has added four faculty members in the last year, and shares three faculty members with Extension Plant Sciences, so now students have access to18 professors with distinct expertise.

"We have a high level of service to students in our department. We have faculty advisers - we don't use an advising center - our emphasis is on providing good service," Sims said.

Sims also explained that part of his goal as department head is to provide that same level of service to the community.

"I want to raise awareness in the community that NMSU is a resource. We want to work toward a point where people know that we can help them. Most people are not directly engaged with agriculture, yet the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the EPPWS Department have a great deal of expertise that could serve them," he said.
Part of his plan involves professors making their research and results accessible to the public, not just the scientific community.

"For most professors, their training prepares them for securing funding and publishing their research in scientific literature, but generally they wait for it to work its way through to society. That takes a long time, even decades to happen without any assistance. That doesn't serve the educational purpose of the research," Sims said.

Sims said his experience in the government sector, his expertise as an environmental microbiologist and almost three decades of teaching are a useful combination to expand the potential of the EPPWS Department and continue building partnerships with other departments, universities and the community.