What is a butterfly?
How do they fly?
How many kinds of butterflies are there?
Have you ever seen a real butterfly?
What do butterflies eat?
How do caterpillars change into butterflies?
Why do butterflies have scales?
These are some of the questions my four and five year old students asked at the beginning of the school year when I introduced our class as Burton’s Butterflies. Each year I choose a different alliterative theme name for our class and that helps set the tone for our first project: a name study. We study the names of the children in the class and the class name. Usually, I use that time of year to get to know my students and learn more about their interests and experiences to help us plan further projects for the year. This year, however, the children were all about butterflies from the very beginning…and we made the project last all year. Now, in May, they are seeing all of their hard work, questioning, expert visits, and research come alive in the form of our school butterfly garden. We ended up dividing the project into sections and studying each part independently of the others. At the end of the year, we tried to fit all of the pieces together for the children to make connections between the project parts.
Mini-Project 1: Butterflies, the Insects
We spent several weeks researching the various types of butterflies and we identified five butterflies in particular that are found in Upstate South Carolina. We decided to focus on these and learn as much as we could about them so we could prepare a place for them in our butterfly garden…our project goal! We also recognized that there are many other types of butterflies in our area, but we wanted to become experts on a few. We invited a lepidopterist to come talk to us about the butterflies of South Carolina and we learned about other butterflies we might attract to our garden. The children wrote verses to a song incorporating many of the facts we learned about butterflies. They became concerned about deforestation and how people have a huge negative impact on the butterfly population. Even in the fall they started to draw butterfly gardens and build them in the Construction center. We looked at pictures of butterfly gardens and listed components we needed to include to make just the right habitat for our butterflies. We learned about host plants and nectar plants and identified host plants for the five butterflies that were of particular interest to us.
Mini-Project 2: Butterflies and Flight
One question that continued to come up over and over was “How do butterflies fly?”. This morphed into questions about flight in general. How did anything fly? Why can’t we fly? Our investigations began. We learned about airplanes and how they fly. We learned about air pressure and Bernoulli’s Principle. We experimented with Bernoulli’s principle and made various types of paper airplanes and whirligigs. We tested our airplane designs to see which would go the farthest. We learned about wing shapes and the effect on flight. We invited another expert, a physicist, to visit us for Bernoulli’s birthday celebration at the end of January. He brought us some special materials to demonstrate Bernoulli’s principle with us. He also stayed to decorate airplane cookies with us!
Mini-Project 3: Scales, Light, Reflection, and Stained Glass
Another big question related to a butterfly’s scales. “Why do butterflies have scales on their wings?”. We knew they were important in flight, but did they have other purposes and what was the nature of the scales? We learned that the scales hold the pigment that gives the butterfly color and the scales also reflect the sun’s light. The scales help keep the butterflies warm too. We started talking about sunlight and color and reflection, and that led us to a study of stained glass. The children investigated the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright. They compared the styles and the children started creating realistic and abstract stained glass designs of their own on the light table. We also investigated the properties of glass and watched YouTube videos of blown glass. We tried to recreate the effects of stained glass with tissue paper on the windows and with glass paint on glass bowls. Then we took a special trip to see some stained glass panels owned by our university. The children were very impressed. We learned about the history of the panels and also found out the answers to logistical questions like “How did the stained glass get to Furman from Atlanta, GA (where it was made)?”. We got to see the front and back of the panels and we identified shapes and colors in the glass. We also did drawings of some of the panels and used them as inspiration for our own drawings.
Mini-Project 4: The Butterfly Lifecycle
This spring, we experienced the butterfly Lifecycle. While we knew about the process of metamorphosis, it was not real to us until we watched our baby Painted Lady caterpillars get bigger and bigger and then hang in a J-formation and shed their skins one last time to form chrysalises. We read many books about a butterfly’s lifecycle and found that many gave inaccurate information. We made a list of children’s books that are scientifically inaccurate. With great anticipation we waited for the butterflies to come out of the chrysalises and reveal their fragile beauty. We were not disappointed. We watched them through netting for a few days and then had the opportunity to sit in a “Butterfly Bungalow” with the butterflies. The children would shriek with delight when one would land on a shoe or a finger. They were proud parents! At the same time, we were watching another Lifecycle. One of the children in our class brought in a milkweed plant with a Monarch caterpillar on it. It too became a chrysalis and then a beautiful, large butterfly. We compared the two types of caterpillars and chrysalises, the sizes of the wings of the adult butterflies, and the amount of time each was in the pupa stage.
This stage of our project coincided with part of the Lifecycle mini-project. After months of planning and waiting, we finally got to plant! We learned about the things plants need to survive, about parts of a seed and parts of a plant, and about different ways seeds travel. We made sure we had access to the host plants we needed for our five special butterflies and we had a lot of nectar plants as well. We invited a gardening expert to our classroom to teach us about different kinds of plants. Then, with the help of some hard working parents, we prepared the spot for our garden and started planting. We added mulch and learned about decomposition and how it helps the garden. We also added some special features to our garden, like a puddling area for the butterflies to drink, trellises and tepees for climbing vines, and concrete stepping stones the children made with inlaid glass pieces. When it was time to release our Painted Ladies and our Monarch, we had the perfect habitat ready for them. Some of the Painted Ladies flew immediately to nectar plants. It was thrilling to see how the children’s initial questions and ideas led us through many avenues of learning and then back to their vision for helping the butterflies with their own butterfly garden.
In all of my years of project work, I have never tried to extend a project through an entire school year. It has been amazing for me to see how the children made connections between the mini-projects and always stayed focused on their questions. I hope it will be a year they remember!