Education Blog: The Monarch Institute
Need help finding something?

Education Blog: The Monarch Institute

As part of our goal of bringing the best information to our students, our Education department regularly attends outside conferences to further their knowledge. One recent trip was tot he Monarch Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota. Leslie Dobbs and Laura Snook, both Education Specialists at the Memphis Zoo, traveled to the institute July 23-26. Here, they share their day-by-day happenings with us. 


Day 1: Learning the Monarch Life Cycle

After arriving in Minnesota the night before with two MCS teachers, we were ready to start learning more about monarch butterflies.  We met other participants from across the incredible monarch flyway, ranging from parts of Canada down to the Mexico-United States border.  Once introductions were complete, we separated into small groups and headed off to explore the monarch life-cycle.  At our first station, we observed monarch eggs and small larva on milkweed and learned classroom rearing techniques and tips.  We observed the incredibly small eggs up close to see the characteristic white color and longitudinal ridges.  The instructors discussed the importance of temperature control when attempting to keep eggs in a classroom setting; if the room is too cold, the monarch growth could be slowed, but if it is too hot, the eggs may not hatch at all.             

After observing the monarch eggs, we moved on to learn more about the host plant of the monarch: the milkweed plant.  We were given materials to help find and identify milkweed present in different environments and practiced identification with the variations of milkweed provided.            

The final station of the morning was the observation of monarch larval stages.  The monarch larvae present characteristics throughout five stages, referred to as instars.  We were able to use clues such as larva length, head shape, and tentacle length to determine which instars were in front of us.            

That afternoon, we studied the pupal stage of the monarch life cycle.  The pupae were reared in the lids of common plastic containers, which allowed for manipulation of the pupae location.  When raising butterflies in a classroom, the insect may pupate too close to the container wall, causing deformities to the adult monarch’s wings.  Instructors demonstrated how to move the pupa to a more open location so the butterflies do not harm themselves when emerging.   

Following the pupae station we began working with adult monarchs.  We briefly covered the different parasites that can affect monarchs and how to identify the parasitic spores on butterfly abdomen.  This gave us a chance to utilize techniques used by researchers and citizen scientists alike to track disease rates in monarchs. Finally we were able to handle the adult monarchs.  We learned how to properly hold the monarchs, so we didn’t cause unnecessary harm and were able to examine the anatomical structures of the butterfly.   Holding monarchs for the first time was a great way to end the lesson.


Day 2:  Arthropods and the Classroom            

The second day focused on the diversity of arthropods and the importance of using them in the classroom.  After spending the morning learning classifications and identification techniques, we were once again separated into groups.  Each group participated in different activities that could be used to enhance classroom curriculum.  These activities ranged from extracting worms to curating plant species from a local field.  We each had fun and learned new ways for sparking inquiry while incorporating fascinating arthropods.    

Day 3:  Insect Sampling            

Whoever heard of pooting for insets?!  We sure hadn’t, but that didn’t stop us from using this unique method for sampling and studying insects and other arthropods in the field.  First, we used a technique called beat sheeting to convince a few insects to join our study group; then we utilized a pooter to suck up the insects into a clear container so we could examine and identify them.   The Instructors then handed us large sweep nets to collect samples from the ground and watched as we practiced our sweep net dance, swinging the net back and forth across the grass.  We also learned about two other ways to sample bugs:  potato pit traps and pop bottle traps.  When we went back into the field to examine previously-set traps, we were amazed at the insects that flocked to these traps!  From harvestmen to June beetles, the variety of life was impressive.             

Our last afternoon at the Institute was spent brainstorming ways we can incorporate what we learned into our education programs.  A vital component of science education is to teach students to think like scientists.  The Monarch Institute showed us how to ask the right questions and how to teach students to ask the right questions in order to begin thinking like scientists.  Through the Monarch Institute, we were introduced to great ideas on how to ignite student interest in both monarch conservation and science in general.  Whether we teach what we learned to homeschool students, camp children, or school classes, our priority will be as it always is:  to instill a love for and a desire to protect animals like the beautiful monarch butterfly.

Posted by Zoo Info at 2:55 PM