Teacher uses monarch butterflies in classroom to teach characteristics of life

Annie Matheis, Features Editor

During the second week of September, biology teacher Melanie Mahoney received an email she wasn’t expecting from a parent.
The parent asked her if she wanted any monarch caterpillars — extras from a local third grade
class project. Mahoney wasn’t sure she wanted the cater-
pillars in her classroom, but since the class was studying the characteristics of life she decided to incorporate them into her lesson plan.
“At first I thought to myself, ‘How can I bring this into the realm of my own classroom?’” she said. “For the minute I wasn’t sure, the minute after, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that. Why not?’”
Mahoney received the caterpillars several days later. She brought in a critter tote and kept it in the front of the room for her class to see.
“This was the topic of conversation, before we even did our bellringer,” she said. “What are the caterpillars doing? [The students] were really interested. They were engaged. They were excited about it. It couldn’t have been a better tool for learning.”
She used the caterpillars to show her class about a few different characteristics of life: obtaining energy, using energy, responding to stimuli, adapting, evolving, growing, developing and excreting.
“We have gotten to observe all the characteristics of life by this simple model,” Mahoney said. “That is something I have never had in my classroom — a model like this to actually show them. It started out as a bunch of caterpillars eating leaves. They were growing, and they were changing.”
Mahoney fed the caterpillars milkweed and cleaned the critter tote every day. She also had to bring them home over the weekends so they could still get the nutrition they needed.
“Those guys are super hungry,” she said. “I have never seen something so small devour something so quickly. For something as small as they are, they are eating a ridiculous amount of food. Their growth is just tremendous in a short amount of time.”
Freshman Sam Virgillito took pictures of the caterpillars almost every day.
“You would see them one day, and they were big, and then the next day they’d be way bigger,” he said. “It was definitely a lot easier to see the growth and change and how it really makes a difference on how an organism reacts to its environment.”
After reaching their maximum weight, caterpillars form a chrysalis, where they start their metamorphosis into a butterfly. The first caterpillar made its chrysalis on Sept. 17.
The class waited approximately two weeks for the caterpillars’ metamorphosis to be com- plete.
When the caterpillars emerged from the chrysalides, three of the six butterflies were tagged using designated stickers with serial numbers that could keep track of where they were located.
All the information from the tagged butterflies went on to monarchwatch.org, where people who capture monarchs can see where the monarchs originated. Mahoney expects the butterflies to migrate to Mexico.
After the butterflies were tagged, Mahoney took her class to flowers around the school to release the butterflies into the wild.
“I was most excited that my kids were excited about it,” she said. “I was happy to release the butterflies, but I got more joy seeing how excited my class was.”
Mahoney said she learned to appreciate the complexity and beauty of butterflies after seeing them up close.
“I think you see butterflies outside, up close, and you think, ‘Oh wow, they’re such pretty organisms,’” she said. “But they really are beautiful when you are able to sit and observe them. You are really able to appreciate their beauty more.”
Mahoney said she wants to use caterpillars again next year to study the characteristics of life.“My main goal was to get the kids interested in science, and that, without a shadow of a doubt, has been tackled,” she said. “I just thought, how cool is it that you can talk about the characteristics of life with something as simple as a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly? I wish I would have thought of it a long time ago. I was really impressed by my class.”