When Hub writers, Paula Lourie and Angela Schipper, first raised the topic of creating a range of articles about butterflies for the Science Learning Hub, they were met with some scepticism from the others in the team. Some people felt that the topic was already well covered. Others wondered what we would do that would be different. Before they began, they needed to do some more research. Angela explains.
Angela decided to talk to our potential audience – her class of 8 and 9 year olds. Angela asked them to tell her everything they knew about butterflies. They were all familiar with the basics of metamorphosis – most had observed it in the classroom but none had really studied it. The children had lots of alternative conceptions: moths are boys and butterflies are girls, butterflies only eat pollen, some butterflies hate the sun, butterflies have powder on their wings. The only two butterflies the students could name were the monarch and the white. No one mentioned native butterflies.
The next stop was the school library where there were 17 books about butterflies. Many were about big, bold overseas butterflies, and they were quite light on scientific content. The little information on native butterflies often had dense text, and the small font wasn’t child friendly. A web search gave us similar results.
Angela went back to her students and fellow teachers with the plans. They were all very keen to have some in-depth, New Zealand-specific resources, so we began our work.
We had three overarching goals:
- Scientific concepts. We wanted to counter some alternative concepts (toxicity, the difference between butterflies and moths) and to inform (detailed information about monarch metamorphosis, discussions on where our butterflies came from).
- New Zealand native butterflies. We wanted a comprehensive ready-to-use collection of images with names, habitat and location details. We also wanted some information on why some native butterflies are so elusive.
- Profiling citizen scientists. We wanted to raise awareness that, by following accepted protocols, even school children can be scientists.
Our experts were George Gibbs, an entomologist at Victoria University of Wellington and Jacqui Knight of the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust (MBNZT). George reviewed our articles to ensure they were scientifically accurate. Jacqui and the MBNZT generously let us tap into their national tagging and transect projects. Trust members also provided many of the images used in the articles and PowerPoint displays.
As the articles and activities were taking shape, we took them back to the classroom. Students were amazed to discover that insects could be natives and that our native butterflies are so different to the ubiquitous monarch and white butterflies. We raised numerous monarch and white butterflies from eggs, charted their progress as larvae and watched as they emerged as adults. We tagged and recorded the monarchs on the MBNZT website. (We debated the release of the white butterflies as we had seen their destruction first-hand in our school vegetable garden. The children chose to euthanise the butterflies in the freezer.)
As a result of their work as butterfly scientists, students took ownership of some neglected flowerbeds and turned them into butterfly gardens. They planted nectar flowers and raised milkweed plants from seed. The children plan to make presentations to syndicate assemblies to inform the other classes about butterfly research. They hope that many other children will become butterfly scientists. These will be the same classes that, in the past, merely observed the metamorphosis processes taking place on their science tables.