2016 PK-12 Spotlight​​​

Tom Turpin

The College of Agriculture PK-12 Council Outreach and Engagement Awards reward faculty and staff involved in successful outreach and engagement activities and encourage others to improve upon and expand those activities. Winner ​​of the 2016 PK-12 Sustained Faculty Impact Award is Tom Turpin, professor of entomology.

When Tom Turpin came to Purdue in 1971 to work on corn pest problems, he brought with him an innovative approach to insect outreach and science education. For 45 years, Turpin has creatively promoted Purdue, entomology, and science across Indiana and throughout the country.

"Over the years, Tom's developed some of the most innovative outreach programs using or focused on insects found today in the country."

—Gwen Pearson, education and outreach coordinator, Department of Entomology

His approach has always been to first gain his audience’s attention. His choice of methods—he unabashedly calls them “shticks”—range from incongruous, to witty, to outrageous. “It helps create interest,” he explains. “People come because of the silly things we do, but if you package it correctly, it becomes a bit like the state fair—a lot of fun that can have a lot of learning associated with it.”

Turpin co-founded Bug Bowl, the centerpiece of Purdue’s annual Spring Fest that attracts more than 30,000 people to campus over two days each April. He also was responsible for the cricket-spitting and cockroach races featured for many years at the Indiana State Fair. 

Real science undergirds Turpin’s sometimes-quirky ideas. “In entomology, maybe more so than any other discipline, people interact with our target organisms usually in a negative way,” he says. “As a discipline, we need to defend those creatures that we work with. There’s a whole other side to insects; it would be a very different earth without them based on their ecological roles.”

Turpin says the university’s vibrant atmosphere, his colleagues and students, and the people he meets statewide through Extension—“the agronomists, the farmers, and all those folks”—have made his long career at Purdue satisfying. Interdisciplinary cooperation among them is especially important to stage an event like Bug Bowl, which requires help from hundreds of people; and Insectaganza, a program he co-developed with colleagues that has reached thousands of Tippecanoe County fifth-graders over the past two decades.

In contrast, Turpin is a riveting one-man show during Bug in a Bag, a program he did originally for the Smithsonian and now presents to groups. He also developed an insect science theater that combines science education and entertainment; and originated the Linnaean Games, a quiz bowl testing the entomological knowledge of university student teams and a popular event at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting. Turpin is a former national ESA president who was named a Fellow of the society in 2010. 

Turpin’s weekly newspaper column appears in more than 40 Midwest newspapers. He is in demand as a speaker, moderator, and master of ceremonies, and has responded to requests in nearly every Indiana county, more than 30 states, and a dozen countries. His message has reached U.S. television audiences through CNN and Good Morning America, many radio stations, and periodicals as different as TIME and National Geographic.

He shared his teaching expertise and experiences with graduate students and teachers for many years as a part-time member of Purdue’s Center for Instructional Excellence.

In preparation for his approaching retirement, Turpin has started his memoirs.

The new PK-12 Council Outreach and Engagement Awards are significant, “because they recognize teaching and outreach the same way we recognize our researchers,” he says. He will use the cash prize that accompanies his award for additional outreach, including bringing demonstration activities to a global audience at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando this fall.​​

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