When students in Darby Proctor’s physiological psychology class, they receive vital animal cognition experience through the use of a unique, and often reviled, subject: the cockroach.
Since 2017, Proctor, an assistant professor of psychology, has worked successfully with these insects to teach behavior and neuroscience.
Now she has written a paper on using cockroaches in the classroom that may spark growing use of cockroaches in the classroom and for research. The paper, “Cockroaches to the rescue: A new approach to reintroduce animal labs to the psychology undergraduate curriculum,” was published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology in October.
The roach research has indeed spread. Her website, roachlab.org, is up and running, and Proctor sent some of her roaches to Drake University, Bucknell University, Georgia State and Eastern Florida State College, where faculty teaching animal cognition and behavior are now working on how use of roaches can spread interest in this field of research.
Psychology labs have traditionally used rats and pigeons as animal models — but these models are costly to maintain and are often associated with ethical concerns. Proctor aims to show how the discoid cockroach (Blaberus discoidalis) can be used as an alternative in the classroom. Cockroaches provide a simple animal model for demonstrating core concepts, are inexpensive to house and maintain, and raise fewer ethical concerns.
Despite the ick factor, students quickly get on board working with the roaches, Proctor has found. Based on survey data from students who have taken these courses, approximately 88 percent of them agree or strongly agree that working with roaches has helped them apply content from the class.
“Everyone is really excited because this is an effective way that we can get students hands-on experience with animal models,” Proctor said. “So far it’s working the way I’ve intended, and what we have seen from our student responses is overwhelmingly positive.”
While most people would likely seek to avoid the creatures, not study them, roaches are in fact a multi-faceted insect, with over 4,500 species that live across the world. As Proctor has continued roach cognition research, one of the points that stood out to her was how little is known about the creatures from a psychological standpoint, including basic behavioral details such as their social structures and mating habits. As students conduct research with them in Proctor’s classes, she noted the students are discovering new information, adding to the learning experience.
Some of these experiences include figuring out how to deal with roach babies popping up – especially when the male and female insects are in different tanks. Previously unreported in the species Proctor works with, but seen in some other cockroach species, it appears the female roaches are switching to a fallback strategy of asexual reproduction. The experience is providing students with another real-life lesson in the adaptation some animals go through to reproduce.
The roaches are tested with mazes made out of Lego blocks, with a treat at the end for a job well done. Students have also adapted Styrofoam coolers to create an arena for testing the creatures. In the spirit of resourcefulness, the arena’s materials are reusable and come from products that a teacher or student may already have around. This is important because one of the goals of using roaches is to have an affordable animal model for students to work with.
What do you use to motivate the roaches? Over time, Proctor has figured out the solution.
“Sugar is the answer,” she said. “The higher sugar treats are the things that they want, particularly in liquids, because we are seeing they drink a lot more than they eat.”
Proctor’s main goal has always been to provide an educational experience on animal cognition and behavior for her students, but she would like to possibly work with museums or science education centers to provide similar learning opportunities for people of all ages. There are tentative talks about creating a program for K-12 students to test what a roach would prefer out of a student-built maze. The program would teach children scientific inquiry and data collection skills.