An international expert on honeybees is better known at OSU for teaching a “far out” course.
Michael Burgett’s Far Side Entomology course is so popular that even though he’s officially retired, he has started offering it twice a year instead of once.
Earlier this year, in fact, National Public Radio selected Far Side Entomology as one of the nation’s most popular college courses.
Using entomological cartoons by Gary Larson and others, Burgett encourages his students to take an in-depth look at the more serious aspects of insects and their relevance to human activities. “Each two-member team does four presentations per term. I give them two cartoons and some entomological reference works to start. They can then go off on any tangents they want,” Burgett says.
The course is filled with humor, but it also involves serious learning. “Each team will have four entomological themes, and they really dig into those and learn the material pretty deeply. They also say they improve their speaking skills,” Burgett says. “Students do 10-12 minute presentations, but they have to spend three or four hours putting each one together. That’s where they learn.”
It’s no surprise that Burgett’s a good teacher. It’s what he always wanted to do, and he received his bachelor’s degree in education in 1966.
“Then 17 days later I got my draft notice,” he says. “I was assigned to a medical lab’s entomology division, so I did medical entomology for two years.”
That interested him in entomology, so he applied to Cornell University for graduate work in the field. “They had one graduate assistantship available, and it was in honeybees. So I went into honeybees,” he says. “People ask me if I’ve always loved honeybees. Actually, it was just a matter of money, but it has developed at least into a large affection.”
Over the years the wild honeybee population in the United States has been devastated by mites, but commercial populations have been saved by chemical controls developed by Burgett and others at OSU and other western universities.
Burgett still finds time for honeybee research, but much of it is done in Thailand because most honeybee varieties are found in Asia. And he plans to continue finding time to teach Far Side Entomology.
“I’m still excited about teaching, so I’ll continue to do it,” he says.