Matt Petersen: Bridging insect conservation and social justice
Meet Matt Petersen, Ph. D., a 2020 IonE Educator and a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a focus on the intersection of insect management and social justice. As a teacher, he aims to help his students think about how insect ecology overlaps with other disciplines, encouraging them to integrate information from multiple fields into how they work and think.
Petersen was motivated to become an IonE Educator because he wants to rethink traditional aspects of insect conservation. For his IonE Educator Fellowship project, he aims to reimagine the UMN Twin Cities undergraduate entomology program into tracks and to incorporate social issues, such as Native sovereignty and class inequality, more deeply into classes. As part of this project, Petersen taught a new seminar in fall 2020 called Environmental Justice and Species Management, where students focused on identifying underrepresented groups in conservation decision-making and learned how to lead with justice in their future professions. Here, he speaks to us about his work and goals as an IonE Educator.
Can you tell me a bit about your IonE Educator Fellowship project and what motivated you to do this work?
My project looks at how to include insects in sustainable practices. I was trying to understand how we can change the viewpoint from managing pests to incorporating insects into conservation. Most people view insects as pests and something we need to control, but I instead wanted to identify how insects fit into systems that already exist. For example, my new seminar course on environmental justice and conservation, developed as a part of my Educator Fellowship, tasks students to explore Indigenous knowledge, displacement, and issues within conservation.
When I first put in a proposal to be an IonE Educator, my idea was different. I had originally proposed to look at insect conservation biology and to create a conservation course. Then COVID hit, I was accepted as an Eductor, I was going to be leading this new Environmental Science Policy and Management (ESPM) course in fall 2020 – and my mind shifted completely in how I view entomology. It opened my eyes to a larger viewpoint. Now I am working more on outreach: how to connect students with the community and how to use the insect as a tool for connection. Can I form relationships with urban gardening programs, solar farm pollinators, and others? Before joining IonE, I probably wouldn’t have done that. I probably would have just stayed with what I knew.
What inspired you to draw connections between insect species management and social justice?
Entomology is a unifying subject. I intend to unify insect species management and social justice subjects by uncovering different insect outcomes in varying demographics and cultures. Most people already have a viewpoint on insects – either they like them or they don’t. I want to utilize the viewpoint of being shocked or scared of insects to understand the baseline thought process behind such fears. Understanding the why of fears around insects can segway into applying a similar thought process to other people and cultures.
Have you encountered any challenges in bringing sustainability into species management education?
Yes, species identification. Part of insect biology education is going out, collecting insects, and identifying and pinning them. However, these specimens often just get thrown away after. That means I facilitate the killing of about 15 – 20 monarch butterflies a semester. Now there is an added risk considering the rise of endangered species. If specimens must be collected, we should do that for a reason and looking for new information.
In other sections of biology, species don’t get killed as often for identifying purposes. But because insects are seen as an “other,” I think they’re associated with “management” or “of needing control,” and so the viewpoint on killing them is different. In my classes, I focus on how we can use monitoring instead of collection, which will also be useful in tracking insect species over time.
What does sustainability mean to you?
My emphasis is changing. I have shifted my perspective within the last year and now put an emphasis on social aspects when thinking about sustainability. If you would have told me a year ago that I would combine social concerns with an insect class, I would have said “You’re crazy!” and not even thought about how I could do it. But now I try to do that more and more. I’ve realized that nothing changes if I don’t try to bridge subjects.
The ESPM course that I am teaching right now is basically me asking, “How do I do this?” I looked around the University and saw that no one teaches a course on environmental justice in species management. I thought, maybe a couple of students will take it. It filled up within the week, and I realized this is something that students want. Although it’s been great, it’s also been a process.
How do you envision a more socially just management of insect species?
For me, it is in the connections that can be made. If we are talking about urban mosquito populations and who is disproportionately affected by those, I can see a conduit there. I can see agriculture and urban agriculture and how to look at biological control of pests in those situations. That is how I view my work is connected with the social aspect: making connections and having a broader understanding. It has allowed us to talk about insect-borne diseases and why we should care about, for example, diseases in Africa. It allows us to talk about cultural differences and cultural pressures.
About the IonE Educator Fellowship: IonE Educators are selected from University of Minnesota tenure-track faculty, instructional staff, and adjunct faculty, who have a special interest in effective pedagogy and curriculum development. During their 15-month fellowship period, Educators pursue individual projects aimed at improving existing courses or developing new courses and educational experiences for UMN college students, K-12 students, and the general public. All projects champion the need for diverse perspectives in solving complex sustainability challenges and are supported through a partnership with the Center for Educational Innovation.
Abby Hornberger is a UMN senior studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and an IonE Communications Assistant.