Journey North: Children Practice Real Science by Monitoring Monarchs | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Journey North: Children Practice Real Science by Monitoring Monarchs

Third-grade students at Rockledge Elementary join thousands of kids across North America to track migration patterns of butterflies and other species as part of this online project. More to this story.

Woman: What have we got today?

Narrator: It's a big day for these students at Rockledge Elementary in Bowie, Maryland. It's the day they open an envelope full of paper monarch butterflies made by students in Mexico.

Woman: She lives in Mexico, and she's given us her address, and how many think they could write a note back to her, because wouldn't you like to know who is going to get the ones you made?

Narrator: The arrival of these symbolic butterflies mirrors the annual migration of monarchs from their winter home in Mexico to North America each spring. Following the migration is just one part of Journey North, a comprehensive set of project-based learning activities delivered free to schools across the country via the Internet.

Woman: Okay, let me bring the map up. What we're going to do is we're going to follow the path of the monarchs.

Narrator: Exploring the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, students follow the migration of several different animals and add their personal observations to the global Journey North database.

Elizabeth: And I really appreciate the incredible power of the Internet as a communication tool, because you can be speaking to kids up in Alaska about the snowstorm that just hit up there and the whales that are on their way, and even a kindergartener seeing their first robin is of importance to everybody else.

Woman: Another state where the monarchs are going to be visiting. Kyle?

Kyle: West Virginia?

Narrator: Frances Koontz has used Journey North in her classes for the past seven years to touch on everything from science, math, and social studies to ecology and English. For Koontz, Journey North works.

Frances: Because it's authentic, because we actually write letters, for instance, the children take an ownership of that. Their writing is better. Because they know somebody really is going to read that letter, they're much more careful about their penmanship, about their grammar, about spelling. So I'm able to bring all of those language-arts skills into an activity that is real and authentic. Social studies comes in with the butterflies because Journey North people are just wonderful about bringing us information about the children in Mexico.

Child: The air temperature is 63 degrees.

Narrator: Students get a chance to act as scientists, making observations of natural phenomena right outside their classroom door and sharing their findings with their peers and scientists around the globe.

Frances: The science is just extremely rich, so really, almost every part of my curriculum can be brought into Journey North, and Journey North can be integrated in some way into it. And it meets the state's standards, which is, of course, my benchmark.

Go all the way down.


Narrator: Another Journey North activity is a geographical game called The Mystery Class. Teams of students compete to identify a secret spot on the globe by deciphering scientific and cultural clues to the locale.

Girl: We were trying to guess where our mystery class was. It could be anywhere in the world. Now we think it's Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

Boy: And the weird thing about the photo period is each time, it increases one or two minutes.

Girl: And that means it's by the equator.

Frances: Then I can step back, now that they have this knowledge, and just let them interact with each other and bring out a product. It's just wonderful to watch.

Narrator: While Journey North relies on sophisticated technology to deliver information, there is no substitute for a first-hand experience of nature's small miracles.

Frances: What does that tell us?

Monarchs are here.

Frances: It might be a monarch.

Frances: We were lucky enough to have a patch of milkweed in the front of the school, and we found 57 eggs and larvae and brought them in. We actually were able to watch one of the butterflies emerge from its chrysalis. That's something they'll never, never forget.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Diane Curtis


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rege Becker
  • Jim Gilchrist
  • Joseph Rose


  • Kris Welch

Additional footage courtesy of

  • Annenberg/CPB
  • Frances Koontz

Editor's Note: Although Fran Koontz, the teacher shown in this video, retired in 2008, the Journey North continues to be actively used in schools all over the country, and is considered the nation's premiere "citizen science" project for children.

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