Conservation and education are working hand-in-hand at Copper Ridge Elementary School, thanks to a program that is aimed at supporting pollinators.
In 2004, kindergarten teacher Natasha Patchen began raising monarch caterpillars in her classroom, illustrating lessons about the butterfly’s life cycle.
In the past decade, though, it became more difficult to find the eggs and caterpillars, so Patchen used the Copper Ridge garden to plant milkweed, which is the only food that a monarch caterpillar will eat.
The teacher said this is the first year that the garden has attracted butterflies to lay their eggs, and she is now raising more than 20 monarchs in various stages of development. Patchen said that within the next two weeks as many as two dozen monarchs could emerge from the chrysalis stage, and her students will then release them into the wild.
The idea is to help students understand the monarch’s journey: The eggs hatch tiny caterpillars that shed their skin as they grow, before entering the chrysalis stage, where the caterpillar is protected by a hanging shell as it changes into a butterfly.
“It teaches students about the life cycle,” Patchen said. “It’s important that they know that we’ve got to care for the Earth.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the monarch population has decreased significantly in the past 20 years, thanks to factors including habitat loss throughout their range and the use of chemicals that can destroy milkweed.
Besides providing milkweed for caterpillars, the Copper Ridge garden is also home to plants that support monarch butterflies themselves, including goldenrod and zinnias.
Patchen recently began her 27th year as a teacher and her 17th year at Copper Ridge. And like any good kindergarten teacher, she balances the serious business of science with a healthy dose of fun. She pointed out, for example, that monarchs have six pairs of eyes but poor vision, and that if humans grew at the rate of a monarch caterpillar, they would be 30 feet tall in two weeks.
Sometimes, of course, it’s the little things that leave a big impression. Kindergartner Hayden Terry should get to see the butterflies soon, but in the meantime he already thinks the monarch caterpillars are cool – “because they eat leaves.”
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes this blog, Hall Pass, for the KCS website.