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The Campus as a Classroom: 3rd Graders Study Local Monarchs

The Campus as a Classroom: 3rd Graders Study Local Monarchs
Sophie Shulman

For Garden Teacher and Tinkerer David St. Martin, ecoliteracy is not just part of the curriculum—it’s a passion that he loves to share with students. Learning about and caring for our natural world has been a means of connecting with students on a deeper level. “Showing them something in nature, whether it’s a caterpillar nibbling on a leaf or a sprouting veggie in the garden, opens up new and ongoing avenues for connection,” he says.

In addition to the organic garden situated on the southeast corner of campus, the butterfly garden has long been a great source of outdoor learning. In between the Lower and Middle Divisions, the butterfly garden features various kinds of plants and—attributable to its name—supports a significant butterfly population. Several years ago, a Mark Day family reached out to David to donate native milkweed seeds to the school, which are a better source of food for monarch butterflies. Recognizing his limited knowledge of milkweed plants, David began following emerging research and discovered that tropical milkweed is a carrier for parasites that harm monarch butterflies. Native milkweed, on the other hand, is less of a carrier, and its lifecycle mirrors the local seasons, which helps aid the monarch migration. “If monarchs don’t migrate and instead stay in one place, they accumulate diseases and parasites, which weakens them for travel,” explains David. “So we really want to do what we can here on campus to help monarchs continue to migrate.” 

Unfortunately, the more harmful tropical milkweed had spread across campus. Last year, David brought in narrowleaf milkweed seeds and stratified them to get them to sprout. Though a mouse attack on the harvest prevented them from sprouting, David considered it a promising enough experiment to bring in student involvement. “I thought it would be an awesome long-term project for students because it’s highly visible, rooted in science, and encourages students to explore and care for the natural environment around campus.”

Third graders were the students of choice to carry this project forward, not only because of their proximity to the butterfly garden, but also because their developmental stage strikes the right balance of curiosity and scientific thinking--and the project also aligns with their year-long study of Marin County. “The teachers really jumped on board with this project,” says David, expressing gratitude for the eagerness to collaborate among Mark Day faculty. “We did a successful stratification of milkweed seeds in the fall, and students are currently sprouting those seeds—500 of them!—in the Lower Division hallway.” Students are also slowly but surely replacing tropical milkweed found on campus with native milkweed. During this work, students discovered caterpillars on the tropical milkweed they were helping to eradicate, and brought those caterpillars inside so they wouldn’t freeze. They are now caring for those caterpillars as well, and will soon release them. “Every day, third graders conduct counts of the monarchs in the butterfly garden and chart their findings,” says David. “They talk about how to count them strategically so they can compare their counts from month to month. It’s become a big part of their job in third grade to monitor the population of monarchs, consider their food sources, and make sure they have enough healthy milkweed nearby.” Cultivating these populations of milkweed is a long-term project that will require maintenance as it continues, which David hopes will be taken on by future 3rd grade classes.

David is excited to see where this project goes, especially as it extends beyond monarchs to study other parts of our natural world right here on campus, such as different kinds of butterflies, caterpillars as a food source for birds, oak trees that grow on the hillsides around campus, and more. David is also exploring a bee project with 2nd graders. “We look at our entire campus as a classroom,” he says. “Which means collaborating with [Director of Facilities] Wes Howell on some of the management strategies for campus plants. It’s amazing that we have such support, from maintenance to the administration. It’s pretty powerful.”

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson (the original “ant man!”) was a major proponent of biophilia, which suggests that humans possess an “innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.” David embodies that concept, bringing it to life for Mark Day students. He hopes that this project is just the start to connecting kids to their local natural environment on a deeper level; integrating our ecoliteracy curriculum more consistently is also part of our 2022 Strategic Plan. “If you aren’t aware of these special parts of our natural environment, how can you value it enough to protect it?” David says. “There’s magic in recognizing what’s going on beneath the surface—or even what’s going on with a plant you walk by every day. You see things differently when you know the what and why.”