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Nature’s Teaching Tools: Monarch Butterflies Brighten Up A Utah Classroom

A Utah educator has morphed part of her classroom into a monarch habitat for student learning, but is not just teaching the scientific principles. The act of raising these beautiful creatures is instilling much more than just knowledge in her students, it’s sparking curiosity, and imparting a sense of stewardship.

“The monarch population has been steadily decreasing. I thought it would be interesting to bring this into the classroom and see if we could learn a little bit about what is going on with our population here,” said Shaunda Wenger, a biology teacher at Logan High School.  

The students are learning the basics like monarch habitat, life cycle, and migration patterns. They have witnessed the stunning metamorphosis—from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and finally butterfly—and have even gone out to collect eggs and milkweed. High school student Emilio Alejandre was particularly excited about one fact he learned while participating in the project.

“I learned how to distinguish female from male. The male has black circles on the back of their wings and female doesn’t,” Alejandre said.

One area of interest for Wenger and her students is gaining a better understanding of where monarchs migrate to from Utah.

“We’re tagging them. We put little stickers on to figure out if the butterflies are seen again [once they’re released]. It’s just a light-colored circle sticker that pops out against their orange and black stripes,” Wenger said. “If people see the tags, they can look at the number, go to the website on the sticker, and enter where they found the butterfly. We want to help put data out there.”

Sophomores, Alejandre and Tianna Martin have both enjoyed participating in the study, but for different reasons.

“It’s a lot more fun releasing butterflies than searching through milkweed. It takes a long time and sometimes you don’t find caterpillars, instead you find a whole bunch of spider eggs,” said Martin, who has had an interest in insects from a young age.

Alejandre said, “When I was in Mexico, you could see how the [monarch population] was going down and down. The numbers were decreasing. I like going and finding the [eggs], because I know there is a greater probability they are alive."

Even though the season for monarchs is fluttering down in Utah, Wenger and her students will continue their efforts by learning to propagate milkweed indoors and outdoors. They will then have their own supply for next year’s emerging population. 

Additional information: Major support for the monarch butterfly project at Logan High School comes from the GEAR UP program.