Mt. Abe takes interdisciplinary approach to ecology

MONKTON EIGHTH-GRADER ANNA BELLE Hunt, left, and her Starksboro classmate Makayla Emmons carefully handle a monarch butterfly that was discovered during a field trip to the Bristol Peace Garden last week. Their class at Mount Abraham Union Middle School is taking an interdisciplinary approach to learning about monarchs and other threatened species. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

NEW HAVEN EIGHTH-GRADER Alex Vukoder stands at the ready in case any monarch butterflies come floating by. Vukoder and his classmates at Mount Abe will spend the year studying rare, threatened and endangered species from ecological, literary and policy perspectives. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

MOUNT ABRAHAM UNION Middle School science teacher Jocelyn Foran, right, prepares a group of her eighth-grade students for a data collection project at the Bristol Peace Garden. Last week the students met local naturalist Gail Butz there to learn about monarch butterflies and milkweed, and to conduct their own research. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

STARKSBORO EIGHTH-GRADER MAKAYLA Emmons examines milkweed leaves for monarch butterfly eggs and larvae in the Bristol Peace Garden last week. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

BRISTOL — When one of a pair of monarch butterflies escaped captivity and flew off toward a corner garden at Mount Abraham Union High School last week, Jocelyn Foran’s eighth-grade ecology students leapt into action, chasing after their classmate who chased after the butterfly with a white net. The swirling, weaving group looked like nothing so much as a murmuration of starlings.

After they recaptured the monarch and calm was restored, Foran applied a special tracking tag to its wings. If all goes well, a few months from now someone in Mexico will scan the tag and note that the butterfly had flown all the way there from Vermont.

Chasing butterflies is one small part of a larger interdisciplinary unit focused on rare, threatened and endangered species that Foran is co-teaching with Nan Guilmette (English Language Arts) and Betsy Rippner (Social Studies).

The students chose the unit’s theme about a year ago.

“All of our middle school teams try to incorporate student voice and choice whenever possible,” Foran told the Independent. “By giving our students the reigns, we give them practice with important skills like planning, organization, time management and collaboration. We also give them the message that the work they are doing right now is real work and important work.”

Through a number of field experiences, which were made possible by a grant from the Otter Creek Audubon Society, the eighth-graders will learn about three species facing challenges in the Lake Champlain Watershed, Foran explained. On their first field trip they collected data on a research vessel on Lake Champlain, then dissected fish to see if their stomachs contained microplastics.

“That was fun,” said student Reese Laliberte, who lives in Bristol. “We studied plankton that we scooped out of the lake.” Dissecting the fish, however, was “kind of gross,” she said. “It smelled really bad.”

This week students are traveling to Swanton to monitor spiny softshell turtle nests.

Last week, on their second field trip, the class walked from Mount Abe to the Bristol Peace Garden, which is located in a corner of the town green. There they met Bristol resident Gail Butz, who helps track monarch butterflies and who cultivates one of the plants that make up their main habitat — common milkweed. Butz explained to students how monarchs and milkweed are connected, then assisted them with their search for butterfly eggs and larvae in the Peace Garden.

The monarch is the only butterfly species that is known to make the same sort of two-way migration as birds. Monarchs will travel up to 3,000 miles to reach their winter homes, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

But their numbers are dwindling.

In 2014 a group that included the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a 159-page petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requesting protection for monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act. The petitioners cited a number of factors for their request:

• habitat destruction.

• overuse for commercial, recreational, scientific and educational purposes.

• disease, predation and invasive species.

• pesticides and herbicides.

• climate change.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently conducting a species assessment.

Some of this had already come up in classroom discussions.

At the Peace Garden — because Foran, Guilmette and Rippner’s students have taken up strands of this project from scientific, literary and civic perspectives — they brought an impressive level of sophistication to the questions they asked Foran and Butz.

The interdisciplinary curriculum lends itself well to project-based learning, Foran told the Independent. Students learn by engaging in a long-term problem that grapples with an authentic question or problem.

“In this case, they are grappling with the question ‘What actions should we take to nurture the biodiversity of Earth’s wildlife?’” she said. “To answer it for themselves and figure out what action they will plan, they need to deeply understand the issues through multiple lenses: ecology, public policy, economics. To accomplish such a monumental task, they have to learn facts and skills that they would learn in a traditional education system, but the process is more meaningful and coherent.”

Because of this approach, a student like Laliberte, who acknowledged that science is not her favorite subject, can find multiple entry points into the curriculum.

“English is my favorite subject,” she said. “I like reading about science and endangered species.”

As Foran’s students moved through the Peace Garden, clipboards in hand, peering at leaves and taking notes, Foran reminded them that “zero” or “dead” eggs and larvae also count as “data” and could be important for researchers to know about.

Their data, when compiled, will get uploaded to the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab.

Unfortunately, the only monarch butterfly students found in the Peace Garden was dead.

“We named it Crash,” said students Anna Belle Hunt, Makayla Emmons and Joclyn Davis as they carried it back to school.

Then, just as the class was about to re-enter Mount Abe, they discovered monarchs — live ones — flitting about in the sunlight.

Hurriedly, they organized themselves into new data-collecting teams.

“I was pretty psyched to have some caterpillars and butterflies to explore with them at the end,” Foran said the next day.

During the latter half of their unit, students will work in small groups to design and carry out service projects to help one of the species they’ve studied.

“It will be an open-ended project, so the direction they take the service piece will vary,” she said. “They could collect data for a citizen science effort, for example, (or) help plant riparian buffers along the New Haven River, or set up a meeting with a local legislator to advocate for changes to policies regarding the lake. It will be up to them how they want to take it.”

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