George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration

Students in Maryland participate in a countrywide science experiment.

June 6, 2002

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.

It's spring, and monarch butterflies are making their annual 2,500-mile voyage to Canada from Mexico. The beautiful, orange-brown Lepidoptera have been spotted in Virginia.

"What I want you to do is mark on the paper map right now where Mexico is," teacher Frances Koontz tells her class of third graders. "We're going to follow the path of the monarchs and identify the states where they travel. If you need help with the name, look in your atlas."

She later asks the students whether the butterflies are getting close to their hometown of Bowie, Maryland. They excitedly note that Virginia is the state next door.

Daily recording of temperatures gives students an idea of optimum conditions for the arrival of the monarch butterflies.

Working As and With Real Scientists

For six years, Koontz, who teaches at Rockledge Elementary School, has involved her class in the activities of Journey North. Journey North traces the migration of butterflies and other species as they head north each spring. Students at more than 6,000 schools make observations and report their sightings to create a digital map. They also are linked to working scientists who take questions about the different migrations.

Other Journey North projects include growing tulips and noting the bloom times of the flowers across the continent, tracing the migration of birds and whales, and identifying a mystery city based on photo-period data consisting of sunrise and sunset times.

In Koontz's class, each child maintains a folder that documents the monarchs' flight from a wildlife preserve in the mountains outside Mexico City, where the brilliantly hued insects look like a dazzling kimono as they cover the branches of the local oyamel trees. Once Journey North officials report sightings in the southeastern United States, Koontz and her students are on high alert looking for the butterflies in their own neighborhood. They also are watchful at all times in case they see a butterfly that doesn't fit the usual pattern of travel. As soon as the students spot the monarchs, they report their observations to the Journey North databank as part of a three-continent collaboration in which 300,000 students are participating scientists.

Teacher Frances Koontz shows students a "symbolic" butterfly sent from children in Mexico, where the journey north begins.

Scientific Observation

"I was sitting in the upper deck of Camden Yards Baseball Stadium and noticed a monarch fly in a northwesterly direction at about our eye level (approximately 80 feet from the ground)," Koontz wrote in one "Field Data Reports Record." "Of course I now had my eyes skyward instead of on the game but I was rewarded, because I observed 33 monarchs float across the baseball field, one at a time."

Koontz says the science in Journey North "is just extremely rich," adding that the Internet project also cuts across disciplines, such as writing, math, social studies, and geography. Students in Koontz's class also are gaining a special understanding of Mexico through the exchange of "symbolic" butterflies -- sewn or drawn representations -- that includes information about the lives and surroundings of the students who made them. The eight- and nine-year-olds in her class calculate the time from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. They measure -- in centimeters because that's what scientists do -- growth of tulips and milkweed, on which monarch larvae feed. They take daily temperature readings in their garden. They make charts and graphs of their results. They write in detail about their findings. And they learn about different U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico as their curiosity is piqued through monitoring migrations.

Each year brings new discoveries. One year sightings might start in March, another year in April. Students do their own analyses of the differences in weather conditions that cause the changes in migration patterns. Or, in response to questions from the Journey North Web site, they might explore milkweed ecology or investigate which birds are monarch predators. This year, concerns about the effect of a severe January storm on the Mexico monarchs will surely be explored.

Using cultural clues and photo-period information -- the number of daylight hours -- students identify mystery cities around the world in one Journey North project.

A Good Use of Technology

Technology isn't limited to logging onto the Journey North Web site, which includes live satellite coverage of the migrations. Students in Koontz's class use a digital camera to take pictures of larvae feeding in their milkweed garden and moving through the life cycle to become butterflies. "We actually were able to watch one of the butterflies emerge from its chrysalis," Koontz says. "That's something they'll never, never forget."

She uses a remote keyboard to give different children an opportunity to work at the computer without leaving their desks. The young technologists take pictures from books with the digital camera, put those photographs on disks, and then include the photos in a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation that shows their progress in guessing ten mystery cities by clues ("This city is one of the few world capitals not situated on a coast or navigable river") and comparing photo periods. They use animation and sound effects to write reports about the project.

Koontz says she sees big dividends in the hands-on approach to learning that Journey North advocates, from better writing to deeper investigation skills. For first-timers, she advises teachers to "start out small" and not try too many Journey North activities at once.

"Start out with one component," Koontz says. "I started with the tulips. That one is wonderful, because the children really get to watch that over the school year. And when that garden blooms, it is just wonderful. And then when they realize that there are gardens all over the country blooming with theirs, it's just a real enriching experience for them."

But watch out, she warns: "Once I got on the Web site and found the richness of the site, I was hooked."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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