During the month of May we have been witnessing metamorphosis in our science lab. This project has captivated students in not only the locally developed, applied and university level science courses that I teach but also members of the student and staff population that generally avoid the science wing! It has been authentic experiential learning that has captivated the hearts and imaginations of people that I have never had the pleasure of meeting before and more than just the butterflies have undergone a metamorphosis.
In an attempt to save a few dollars we tried to find a recipe for larvae food but found out that this is a closely guarded company secret and something that graduate students have struggled with for eons. It would have been less expensive to simply feed the larvae what they eat in the wild, in this case thistle leaves, but alas spring was unseasonably wet and cold so we were unable to find any thistles in our travels. Fortunately, our Student Success team funded the purchase of the larvae, the larval medium (food) and a picture book describing the metamorphosis process.
I ordered the live larvae from a biological supply company and they were shipped to the school on exactly the date they were promised. While waiting for the larvae to arrive we learned about what to expect when they came and created our own habitat from an old aquarium tank I just happened to have in the back of my classroom. After viewing a number of videos from you tube we decided that we would:
1. keep our larvae, pupae and butterflies at room temperature;
2. modify the old tank so it had a lid and allowed a free flow of air;
3. get some packets of sugar in stock to prepare sugar water for the butterflies when they emerged;
4. be able to identify whose larvae was whose by keeping them in separate containers until they pupated but once they were moved into the larger habitat there would be no way of identifying and owning them.
By happenstance our shipment of larvae actually arrived while I was teaching the locally developed class. Because the front office knew I was expecting the shipment and it was clearly labelled as containing live specimens they called into my classroom as soon as it was delivered. This created great excitement amongst the students! When the “runners” brought the shipment up from the office we studied the package prior to opening it. It had large red labels on it reading, “Live Specimens, Handle with Care, Do Not Freeze” which created a beautiful teachable moment for literacy. We read the label, discussed the choice of colour and font size as well as the meanings of the words and phrases. (Proving, once again, that text can take many forms and be found in a variety of situations.)
Mixing up the larval medium (food) for them to feed on proved to be surprisingly difficult which meant that it took long enough for everyone to have a turn at stirring. While we were passing it around the room to stir it we also practised “safe smelling” by wafting its odour towards our nostrils and hypothesized about what might be in the top secret recipe. Lots of excellent ideas were put forward. They included:
· baby pablum
· wheat germ
Once we got the medium stirred to an even consistency we each transferred some food into our labeled containers and punched air holes in the lids. Next I demonstrated to the students how to transfer the larvae, using paintbrushes, into their individual containers. The students took the time to examine their larvae with hand lens and exclaimed at their observations – “I can see the bristles”, “Mine has its mouth open!”, “Mine curled up when I touched him!”, “Mine is looking at me!”, “I think mine is dead, no . . . wait, its moving now!”, “Mine is already eating!”
In order to encourage ownership of the project I asked each student to name their larva. Careful handling of living specimen and caring for all God’s creatures was inherent in this project. So much so that a few days later when I realized that my larva was well and truly dead (the only one that actually died) I expressed disgruntled emotions and tossed it into the garbage. The students were outraged! Boy was my face red!
Bowing under pressure from my students I removed the larva from the garbage can, apologized for being disrespectful towards a living (now dead) creature and had to actually have a little funeral for the dead larva! Eureka! They understood the ethics of handling living things, no matter how small or unattractive!
Each student kept a daily journal of their larva’s growth and development. Their daily observations included the date, a sketch of their specimen, and one or two descriptive words. This observation journal formed part of their final assessment for this project. During their observations the students learned about the moulting process of caterpillars. It took about 7 – 10 days for the larvae to pupate, at which time they were transferred into the butterfly habitat we had created out of the old aquarium. Two – three days later the butterflies began emerging. Magic!
For a final evaluation project of the project I had each of the learners in the locally developed course create an eight page illustrated butterfly book. The page break down was:
1. Title page
6. Larvae food
7. Adult food
8. Structure and function of the proboscis
The students, and various other members of our school community, were so engaged in the experience of watching the process of metamorphosis that they would often drop by the classroom several times a day. All of my students, in each period, became experts on the entire process because there was always someone coming by to take a look and ask questions. My response to any questions asked by visitors was consistently, “Ask the students.” This allowed the students to discuss their learning and thereby reinforce it.
I was truly planning to take the student produced butterfly books with me to the Smarter Science Unconference next weekend (June 11, 2011) but I have been unsuccessful in finding a sponsor for the cost of my travel (aprox. $500.00). If you know of any grant money or other funds I could access for this reason please contact me via Twitter @EurekaTeacher.