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Roach Hill Downs

Washburn alumnus takes a unique approach to the world of insects

Tom Turpin

From The Ichabod - Spring 2017

When he was a student at Washburn University, Tom Turpin, bs ’65, was among the majority of people who, at best, had a disinterest in bugs.

However, while pursuing his doctorate degree at Iowa State University, he came to realize the importance of the critters so many shy away from. For the past 46 years, Turpin has made a career of spreading this knowledge to his classes at Purdue University.

“It became obvious to me the attitude people have, in general, toward insects is negative,” Turpin said. “Bugs are stinging us, biting us, in our food. By transmitting diseases, they’ve killed more people than any of the wars altogether, so you have to work pretty hard to get people interested in the subject.”

Despite the typical reservations, Turpin, who retired at the end of the spring semester, has made entomology one of Purdue’s most popular subjects.

Mixing fun activities and hands-on learning experiences into his lectures have helped Turpin open his students’ eyes to the role bugs play in our everyday lives.

“The biggest thing you notice right away is he’s very enthusiastic,” said Hannah Quellhorst, a Purdue entomology graduate who took Turpin’s insect poetry course. “Most professors lecture with a PowerPoint, but Turpin usually talks from memory and brings props or does a demonstration.”

Turpin’s passion for the topic extends beyond the lecture hall, most notably in the Bug Bowl, which originated 27 years ago as a small in-class activity and now attracts thousands of people as part of Purdue’s Spring Fest.

Roaches race in a miniature arena dubbed “Roach Hill Downs,” which Turpin and his students have hauled all over the country, converting newfound fans of bugs along the way.

“It’s grown into a pretty big event,” Turpin said. “It’s been featured on TV programs and in the media. We took it to the International Congress of Entomology last fall in Orlando. We set it up at the insect expo that was in conjunction with the event. People really enjoy it.”

Other Bug Bowl attractions include an insect art contest, bug cooking demonstrations, one of the world’s largest private collections of pinned insects and a cricket spitting contest, which boasts a Guinness world record spit of 32 feet, 1.25 inches.

The exposure of the Bug Bowl, along with Turpin’s lively teaching style, contributed to entomology’s buzz on campus. But it wasn’t always that way.

“The first year, we had six students, and university rules said we needed seven to teach a class,” Turpin said. “I looked out and saw a character walking on the sidewalk. I pulled up the window and told him I needed one more student. He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’m an engineering student. I don’t want to take an insect class.’ But I talked him into sitting in, and at the end of the hour, he signed up.”

Turpin can relate to undergraduates’ hesitation to studying bugs. As a biology major at Washburn, he had no idea what field he was interested in until a faculty member who worked in entomology suggested checking out graduate programs. Turpin had his doubts but decided to give it a try after a trip to Iowa.

“I headed off to Iowa State not knowing what to expect,” he said. “I will admit, I asked ‘What if I don’t like entomology?’ But the professor I had was pretty dynamic, and I got interested in the subject.”

The entertaining teaching style stuck with Turpin, and as a professor, he sought to implement similar methods to make the subject more appealing.

Once word spread, reaching the seven-student minimum was never a problem. In the years that followed, classes frequently hit a capacity of 470, and lectures were moved to some of Purdue’s largest classrooms.

Some days Turpin dressed as a waiter or maestro, and students would get a chance to sample the food, music and other forms of culture bugs have an impact on. Other days, skits might play out in front of the roomto illustrate entomophobia, parasitosis and othertopics that wouldn’t be as engaging in a traditional lecture format.

“They came to class never knowing what would happen,” Turpin said. “There was always something different from my perspective or the students’ perspective. Some days were straighter, but there was always something to look forward to.”

Most people would find it difficult to walk away from a career they’re passionate about, but Turpin said he has enough planned for retirement that leaving his entomology work behind won’t bug him too much.He and his wife, Chris, have a fifth grandchild on the way and recently traveled to Costa Rica, the first of what they anticipate will be many overseas adventuresin retirement.

Winter 2019 Ichabod magazine cover with Bob Dole statue on front

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2018-19 winter edition online and look for it in mailboxes in January.

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