Earlene Armstrong has a doctorate from Cornell University. She's a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and a published author. In 2001, she was named one of 10 national recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
But for a few weeks each summer the past three years, she has become a kid again -- rekindling her memories of catching beetles on her family's North Carolina farm.
"I know you guys are excited, but listen," the 57-year-old educator called out Thursday to a laboratory filled with clamoring children, hands on her hips but a sly smile on her face. This was race day at the third annual Insect Summer Camp on the College Park campus.
The children's squeals of "Ssssh" and "Quiet!" were followed by a wheezing hiss, spat out by a plump, black-ribbed horned cockroach in a counselor's hands. The critter was loud, angry and ready to race.
"The mad ones are the best ones," said 7-year-old Nathaniel Gross of Greenbelt. "They're so mad they want to run a lot."
The campers, ages 7 to 12, formed a circle around a long wooden racetrack as Madagascar hissing cockroaches bolted across the carpeted surface. Although Armstrong enjoys the fun, she said there's a serious purpose: "The drive behind the camp was to expand the curiosity of students and to make them want to study science."
In three years, the number of campers has grown from 17 to about 120, divided into groups over four weeklong sessions. Until a week ago, Armstrong said, she was receiving as many as five calls a day from parents still trying to enroll their children.
The day camp, which costs $175, draws all kinds of kids -- from a "psycho bug killer," as one camper was dubbed by some children, to earnest bug enthusiast and collector Luke Dickerson, 10, of Bowie. The children come from families of philosophers, microbiologists and university faculty members, and one 7-year-old was named for the explorer Marco Polo.
"These children are interested in learning because they want the knowledge," said Armstrong, her gray-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail. "I like seeing young kids actually being eager to learn, rather than your college kids who want to know only things that are on the exam."
The children sometimes ask Armstrong questions that even she can't answer, much less her team of seven college counselors and two volunteers.
"I don't know where these kids go to school," counselor Katreena Whitted, a 22-year-old University of Maryland graduate, said, laughing. "They know a lot more than I do."
Each morning, Armstrong starts with a themed lecture, such as "bug basics." Then the children hunt butterflies, race cockroaches and make crafts modeled after their favorite insects, among other activities. They play with Armstrong's insect collection, which includes bess bugs, grasshoppers, giant African millipedes and cockroaches.
On Thursday, they hosted the "Insect Olympics" and raced against caterpillars -- five students formed a caterpillar chain and crawled across the university lawn, then compared their time in proportion to a caterpillar's time.
Several campers, many of them years from high school, say they want to be entomologists like Armstrong. "She's a great role model for the kids and especially for young girls as a woman scientist," said Mary Jansen of Arlington, the parent of a camper.
The counselors look up to Armstrong, too. For 30 years, she's been mentoring college students, particularly minority students, at the University of Maryland. They come back to her, year after year, even after graduation.
"She was my adviser for four years," said Whitted, who plans to go to medical school. "Kids call her mom."
Dressed in a pale-green pantsuit and brown sandals -- the colors of nature -- Armstrong stood to the side of the insect races Thursday, intervening only when the noise got too loud. But she said she understands the children's excitement.
Like Armstrong, the children developed an interest in insects at an early age.
"When I was 5, some mean kids stepped on an ant, and so I got mad at them," said Kenny Nunn, 9, of Silver Spring. "So since then I started collecting animals and stuff."
Luke, who can name nearly every type of butterfly, has attended the camp all three years. "There's a lot of things that are interesting about bugs," he said, "but a lot of people don't see that, and they squash them."
This bug won't crawl up campers' arms. Youngsters used the fakes in a race in which they balanced the bugs on their feet and deposited them in a pan.