The New Zealand Curriculum has a strong focus on ensuring that all students have the skills and knowledge to participate in public debates and decision-making processes as critical, active, informed and responsible citizens. The premise in this research brief is that nurturing student curiosity about and ability to take action in their immediate environment is an important goal of primary science education.

The butterfly knowledge students learnt

To be butterfly citizen scientists, the students need to know something about butterflies, their habits and habitat. Angela and Sally surveyed the students’ prior knowledge about butterflies through discussion in pairs followed by whole-class brainstorming. Next, Angela introduced butterfly specific vocabulary using an interactive Monarch butterfly life cycle activity from the Science Learning Hub. To conclude the lesson, Angela asked the students to draw a butterfly life cycle of their own.

Over the next two lessons the students learnt about New Zealand butterflies and butterfly migration using two PowerPoint presentations from the Hub – New Zealand native butterflies and New Zealand butterfly families. These introduced the three native butterfly families in New Zealand and native butterfly habits and behaviours. One presentation included the scientific, common and Māori names for each butterfly.

In lesson 3, Angela introduced the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) website. This website included an explanation of the monarch tagging programme and a map that showed where tagged butterflies had been released and recovered from. The students were particularly interested that butterflies had been both released and recovered from their city.

S1: (pointing to the website) Look! That’s somebody in Hamilton!
Teacher: That’s right, some cases are in Hamilton. This map shows butterflies that were released and recovered last year. (Video data, L3, March)

Angela then asked the students if they would like to see more places where butterflies had been released and recovered and the class looked at the patterns for the South Island and then discussed why this pattern might be different from the North Island one.

The butterfly skills they developed

To help them become citizen scientists, Angela and Sally encouraged the students to develop the skills of observation, hunting, tagging, releasing and publishing. After learning about the butterfly life cycle, the students used magnifying glasses to observe monarch eggs and pupae on milkweed leaves. Next, Angela demonstrated how to tag a real butterfly and to publish its data on the MBNZT website. The students then practised their own tagging skills using a paper butterfly by placing a small round sticker on the underside of a wing. See the activity Tagging monarch butterflies for science for more information.

The actions they took as ‘butterfly citizen scientists’

The students continued to search out, observe and tag butterflies over their lunchtime. They reported the tag information to the MBNZT all by themselves. They emailed their teachers to say they had done this, signing themselves as ‘your butterfly warriors’.

Being a citizen scientist for a long term

In the student interviews after the final lesson, all nine of the interviewed students stated that they would like to continue to be citizen scientists. A representative description of the things that the students wanted to do as citizen scientists into the future was:

(Student interview data after the final lesson, March): I would like to protect, research and tag them [butterflies]. Maybe if you find the rare species and help them grow up. If they’re broken or something, you can take them into where you go and look after them.

In the student interview 6 months after the unit, the students showed continued interest in butterflies and expressed a commitment to looking after the environment. They indicated they understood how butterflies fitted into the ecosystem.

S1: We just want to keep our environment clean and happy, not harm stuff.
S2: People shouldn’t harm the animal. We hope in the future the world is still sustainable. And we should be careful and not kill too many things, and we will still have much nature left. In the future, people should know we have such beautiful things.
S3: If we don’t help them [butterflies], things like the food chain may break. (Student interview data after 6 months, September)

Connecting to other subjects

The Hub butterfly resources intersected and was integrated with reading, writing and art. For example, while they were on a camp, the students did some ‘butterfly dancing and paintings’. The students wrote poems to accompany their paintings. A number of the poems demonstrated students’ scientific knowledge and fluency with the science terms they had learnt. The poems included mention of wing patterns, body parts and migration. One poem included the line: ‘Their antennae twitch as they glide through the wind.’


To sum up, this butterfly story illustrates the integration of science learning with action as a citizen – the students contributed to the monarch butterfly database. Emphasising citizenship goals within science learning took place without weakening science content knowledge learning. However, this dual focus needs careful thinking about curriculum and teaching approaches from both curriculum developers and teachers.

Activity ideas

In addition to the activities mentioned above you like to also check out these two unit plans below on butterflies, written specifically for primary levels:

In this recorded webinar Angela Schipper describes how she used the butterfly resources from the Science Learning Hub in the classroom.

Useful link

Visit The Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust (MBNZT) website.

    Published 3 August 2012