Inspiring Insect Sleuths

By Eve Pranis

"Kids need to know how scientists work, so my students spend time observing, drawing, and using tools such as magnifying lenses, viewing boxes and microscopes to extend their senses," reports teacher Libby Rhoden from Pasadena, TX. Their current focus? The insects in and around the milkweed bushes they planted to nourish butterfly larvae.

Although Libby claims not to be very knowledgeable about nature, her young charges clearly gain because she is comfortable acting as co-explorer in this adventure. Each student in her K-5 gifted and talented group adopts one of the 12 mature milkweed bushes. To gather more thorough data, the students observe and measure insect activity on and around the plants at different times of day and under different conditions (before and after rain, for instance). As they chart their data and compare observations with classmates, generalizations and new questions emerge about the dynamics among plants, insects, and the environment. From that point, Libby requires each student to pursue a unique investigation: Are there more insects present on well-watered milkweed plants than on those that receive less water? Does the time of day and/or amount of sunlight affect the number of aphids on plants? Like good scientists, students also keep alert for unexpected findings. Those spotted beetles, they discovered, seem to keep aphid populations in check.

"In general, rather than present students with names and details of insects at the outset, I like to have kids build their own understanding," says Libby. Based on what they see, where they see a creature, and what plants it interacts with, her students, acting like scientists, create their own names for the insects they've observed. Then they take digital photos of insects and download others from the Internet, categorize them, and print out a guide to take outside. "We are a Title 1 school surrounded by rundown, boarded-up buildings," says Libby. "Our 700-square-foot garden has transformed the school." No doubt, the transformation is within as well as outside the building.

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