Friday, November 18, 2016

Citizen Scientists and the Monarch Butterfly

In 5th and 6th grade this fall, we have been studying monarch butterfly caterpillars, some of which were happily discovered in the milkweed garden that the 5/6 class planted last spring. The students used anatomical markers to determine the molting stage, or “instar”, of their caterpillar, and to track its development.  This is a great way for kids to learn how to keep a daily log of observations and measurements.  The students then use the data they collected from their Monarch caterpillars to generate line graphs that visually communicate their results.  They are also learning how their qualitative observations, such as “the caterpillar molted last night”, or “he ate a ton today!”, can actually help them to explain mysterious changes in the caterpillar’s rate of growth that they discover from their line graphs. Being able to communicate scientific results is an important skill that we practice at all grade levels.
  When their caterpillars pupate and emerge as butterflies, the students tag them with an identifying number as part of a program to track migrating monarchs at the University of Kansas called Monarch Watch.  They then release them, sending them off with a hearty “Adios Mariposas!”, to help carry them to their ultimate destination in Michoacán Mexico where they stay for the duration of the North American winter.  The kids continue to track the butterfly migration and to record their sightings at Journey North.  The 6th graders had an opportunity to tutor the 5th graders in how to navigate the Journey North website, and everyone opened their own accounts so that they can record sightings of the migrating butterflies they observed “on the wing” in Michigan.  We had a great discussion about what a good “scientific” report should contain, and the students wrote practice reports and discussed what elements of their reports had scientific value.  For example, when they report a butterfly sighting, details like the weather conditions, the prevailing wind direction and speed, or the presence or absence of nectar plants can be useful for the study.  In contrast, information about how they felt at the time, or what they had for lunch, or who they were with, are “superfluous” pieces of information that are wonderful for a personal journal or narrative, but not so for scientific observations.  In preparation for the return of the monarchs in the spring, we have planted milkweed in our permanent raised beds, and are working on the construction of a “Monarch Waystation” here at Summers-Knoll.

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