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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

What Do Lepidopterists Do?

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
  • Is the butterfly population decreasing? If so, why?
  • What factors are causing this?
  • What significance does this have for the rest of the ecosystem in which they live (including us)?
  • To what extent is this symptomatic of larger, more complex ecological changes?
These are the questions that a colleague and I posed to 7th graders in "The Young Lepidopterists' Project," a nine week unit we taught at the Independence Middle School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Because lepidopterists (butterfly experts) themselves do not yet have answers to these questions, the students could not find the answers in the back of any textbook. So, taking on the roles and responsibilities of scientists involved in such a study, they set out to find the answers on their own. The unit was, in other words, problem based.
My fellow instructor, Steve Carozza, and I first encountered problem based learning several years ago at the College of William and Mary, where we were completing our master's theses in education. The college's Center for Gifted Studies was piloting some small scale, preliminary projects in this field. I was intrigued by this approach, and it meshed with both my intuitive feelings about active learning and my thesis work in authentic assessment.
Problem based learning, authentic or performance based assessment, and similar strategies are grounded in the idea that school should be about doing real things in real contexts in order to prepare students to perform in the adult world. As I learned from Grant Wiggins, these strategies all begin with these questions: What does the doing of these tasks look like in real life? What skills do we ultimately want the student to take away from this experience?
Over the past few years, Steve and I have developed and implemented a number of such real life projects for our students. The culmination of this work was the butterfly unit, which we designed in collaboration with staff members of the Virginia Butterfly Society and Fred Adams of the Sierra Club.

What Do Scientists Do?

We began by looking at the objectives for 7th grade Advanced Life Science, together with Wiggins' questions and philosophies. In addition to, What does mastery of this field look like in real life? one might ask: What does a biologist do? What does a lepidopterist do?
  • They keep a detailed, structured, field notebook.
  • They make careful, informed, and detailed observations.
  • They do research and keep abreast of current findings in the field.
  • They use, evaluate, and create field guides for identification.
  • They create butterfly gardens and rearing cages to use as observation stations.
  • They write articles for professional journals.
  • They give presentations on their findings to the public and other professionals in the field.
Here was the list of activities that our students would engage in.
Following a brief discussion of the questions listed at the start of this article, the students generated lists of things they knew about butterflies and questions that they had about these delicate creatures. From these we compiled a master list of questions, which we would use as the initial basis for our research. Next, we divided the list into five categories behavior, anatomy, and so on and divided the class into five groups of students, assigning to each a category of questions to research.
Before beginning the research, we looked at the butterfly's general anatomy and life cycles, especially their dramatic metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to adult. We then went to the library for reference books, science books, and periodicals. A number of students searched the Internet for information and resources. And we also used books donated to us by the Butterfly Society. Along the way, the students learned about bibliography formats and research techniques, and they continued to generate questions.
Lepidopterists keep a detailed, structured, field notebook. In keeping with the authenticity of our project, each student's primary assessment tool was the field notebook. Lepidopterists or any field biologist or naturalist maintain field notebooks to document their activities, questions, ideas, problems, progress, and everything they have learned. The notebook is, in essence, a learning log, a record of higher order thought processes, including metacognition. We required each student to bring in a hardcover composition book to use for this purpose, and we provided them with clear sets of directions and examples.
  1. All entries are dated.
  2. All activities are fully described.
  3. All highlighted terms are fully explained. (We wrote terms and definitions on the board each day.)
  4. Observations include all the necessary elements time, place, species, behavior, sun, and so on.
  5. Diagrams, sketches, and drawings reflect thoughtfulness.
  6. Questions are thoughtful, reflecting an understanding of the material.
  7. Problems and concerns are identified, and possible solutions proposed.
Lepidopterists create butterfly gardens and rearing cages to use as observation stations. Each of the five groups of students built a rearing cage out of cardboard boxes and screen. Within these they placed sugar water, tree branches, leaves, and butterfly eggs. Students decorated their boxes and listed information about their particular species. Every morning, the class began with students making formal observations on the growth and development of their butterflies as they passed through each stage.
Our next major task, creation of butterfly gardens, would be a permanent observation station at the school. At the orientation meeting we held for parents a few weeks before the project, we had distributed lists of indigenous butterfly nectar and host plants, and encouraged parents to include these in their spring planting, which many did.
After researching the nature of the relationship between these plants and the local butterfly species, each group designed its own 10 foot by 20 foot garden on paper. The students planned their gardens so that plants would bloom there throughout the summer tall plants in back, vines along the fence, with walkways that allowed access to all parts of the garden. Students also selected plants according to the species of butterflies they attracted, so that there would be a wide variety of butterflies to observe.
During a visit to Virginia Tech's Agricultural Experimentation Station, the students had an opportunity to review their plans with horticulturist Holly Cruser. She made final adjustments before we ordered the plants.
We tilled a thousand square foot area that the students had staked out along a fence on the school grounds. Students spent time before and during class, during lunch hour, and after school weeding and planting their gardens. Seventh graders who had never held a shovel before were coming in early with hoes and rakes.
Within 10 days, the gardens were beginning to blossom and the first butterfly was spotted (a tiger swallowtail, which they immediately identified). Soon, bushes were growing and the gardens were ablaze with color. On a sunny afternoon, you could see five or six species of butterflies.
Lepidopterists make careful, informed, and detailed observations. Students were expected to make at least four formal observations a week, at school, on field trips, at home, or in neighboring fields or parks. To obtain a guide to what to look for, the class wrote to dozens of entomological societies and organizations asking for formal observation forms.
We weren't quite satisfied with anything we received, so we decided to create our own form. By brainstorming what we wanted in a record, we came up with a detailed checklist. It included many possible behaviors (such as ventral basking, puddling, and patrolling), as well as species, gender, and habitat type; and cloud cover percentage and wind speed.
We then set up a database that paralleled the observation form. At regular intervals, the students went to the computer lab to log in their data. From this database, they compiled statistics on the butterflies of Virginia Beach.
With Holly Cruser as hostess, we made our first field observations at the Agricultural Experimentation Station. Fred Adams of the Sierra Club helped us arrange other field trips, as well as expert speakers and resources. Students had many opportunities to apply their observation and identification skills during trips to nearby Seashore State Park, the Norfolk (Virginia) Botanical Gardens, and the Norfolk Zoo (a highlight was a magnificent "Butterflies in Flight" exhibit).
Our speakers included Cruser, who talked about host and nectar plants; a Seashore State Park ranger, who addressed habitats and conservation; and world renowned lepidopterist Stan Nicolay, who gave two talks on identifying, capturing, relaxing, and mounting butterflies. Nicolay shared some of his personal collections and many stories of observing, identifying, and naming new species during his world travels. He even invited students to his home to show them his lab and mounting techniques.
For each speaker, students prepared a list of questions related to the speaker's areas of expertise, managing to stump each speaker at least once. This further reinforced to the class that science is not simply the dissemination of existing knowledge, but inquiry and exploration into mysteries we are just beginning to understand.
Lepidopterists write articles for professional journals. As every language arts teacher knows, it's essential to teach students to focus on audience and purpose, and the more specific and authentic the audience and purpose, the more focused the writing. So it was in this project, as students produced some very high quality writing in their many assignments, from field notebooks to final presentations.
The class created a newsletter on their activities for their parents and the school, each group being responsible for its own area of expertise. They typed the final product, which included charts, graphs, maps, and other illustrations, in the computer lab.
Near the end of the project the class published a scientific journal, modeled after the Lepidoptera Journal. It featured articles and illustrations on all facets of a butterfly's existence; a thorough explanation of the problem of decreasing populations; and a description of the students' methodologies, findings, and conclusions.
Lepidopterists give presentations on their findings to the public and other professionals in the field. Our project culminated with a multimedia presentation at Virginia Wesleyan College. The audience of more than 140 people included both parents and members of the Sierra Club and Butterfly Society. The hour and a half presentation written and directed entirely by students included slides, overheads, even music.
Twenty six young lepidopterists gave individual presentations, exhibiting their mastery of this field and making a convincing case for changing human behavior that has led to the destruction of animal habitats. Despite their understandable nervousness, their genuine interest and enthusiasm shone through.
We were able to accomplish all of this by consolidating many of these tasks. The content of the newsletter fed directly into the more formal journal format, which in turn became the basis for the multimedia presentation. Even the pictures, charts, graphs, and maps students amassed at each stage became slides and overheads for the final presentation.

Authentic Performance and Assessment

Though the students researched, explored, and observed somewhat independently, their tasks culminated in structured performance assessments that simulated what professionals would do. In addition to grading the field notebooks, we gave individual grades for each of the other activities and products, from the research to the rearing cages and garden designs to the final presentations. We also gave a traditional summative test.
As the students took on adult professional roles, they expected more of themselves. And they were motivated as they realized that their work would have value outside the classroom and have an audience other than the teacher. Over the course of the unit, they developed problem solving, metacognitive, and organizational skills. They learned how academic disciplines are interconnected.
Children rarely demonstrate real life mastery by selecting a correct answer from a menu or filling in a blank correctly. We see this mastery only at the synthesis and evaluation levels, as we help students gain knowledge and learn to use it in the world.
End Notes

1 G. Wiggins, (May 1992), "Creating Tests Worth Taking," Educational Leadership 49, 8: 26 33.

2 To have your students compile survey data with us online, contact Steve Carozza at Independence Middle School or at

Christopher C. Cuozzo has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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