In schoolyards, backyards, and classrooms throughout North America – and beyond – students of all ages scan the skies for monarchs, monitor milkweed, document hummingbird arrivals, snap ladybug photos, notice nests, interview gardeners, report on bursting buds, and observe the color of firefly flashes. And that’s just for starters. In most cases, their next step is to go online and send their observations and measurements to a project website.
Once the state insect of New York, the nine-spotted ladybug population diminished until it all but disappeared from the radar. In fact when some youngsters spotted one of them near their Virginia home in 2006, it was the first of that species seen in the Eastern United States in 14 years! John Losey and other scientists at Cornell University figured that if lots of eyes scoured the country, they might help find more of them along with some other native lady beetles that were also disappearing. And so, The Lost Ladybug Project was born. But it wasn’t just about documenting locals. Scientists – and many homeowners – noticed that populations of other ladybugs were exploding. This included the orangey Asian lady beetle, which was introduced in this country to control pests. Have these imports excluded the native species from their habitats? This is one of the questions that scientists are exploring, thanks to a growing team of citizen scientists.
When Lila Higgins, an educator from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, first takes her teenage summer camp students out in search of lost ladybugs, they look a bit lost themselves. “I start by talking about ladybugs and other insects and asking students to notice what they see,” says Lila. She instructs them to put their “nature eyes” on. After all, scientists need to hone their observation skills. In many cases, they don’t see much.
Engaging ordinary people in science research isn’t something new. In fact, one of the first formal citizen science projects, the Christmas Bird Count, began in 1900! But in the last 20 years or so, many scientists and educators have embraced this strategy as a winning research and educational tool. Here we describe some of the projects that just might engage your young gardeners, habitat sleuths, and environmental stewards.
Teaching Life Skills through a Youth Garden Business
Vocational agriculture teacher Rose Ormsby-Krueger (North Hollywood, California) uses a cut flower garden and farmers’ market enterprise to teach North Hollywood High School students valuable life skills. “Flowers don’t tell you they’re hungry every day, but they tell you they’re thirsty,” she says. “It takes responsibility to make sure they get watered and taken care of.”
Whether starting zinnia seeds on a sunny windowsill, planting blooming bulbs in a container, or growing big garden plots of flowers so they can make and sell bouquets at the local farmers’ market, schoolchildren all over the United States experience the beauty of cut flowers as they learn valuable math, science, art, and history concepts.
Growing flowers helps teach kids many art, language, language arts, math, and science concepts—along with patience, responsibility, and appreciation for the natural world. Below are some lesson ideas we really like.
Creating compost and exploring its creatures can be cool. So can tracking garden pollinators. It’s well-accepted that when students dig in with hands and minds, they build skills and grasp concepts. Now, imagine how your young scientists would flourish if you also invited them to interpret and portray their discoveries through a cast of characters; dramatic story; poem, rap, or song; musical performance; or interpretive dance.
Inner City Market Garden: Fresh Produce at Low Cost
A former classroom teacher with a passion for raising healthful food, Arna Caplan was volunteer director of a winning seed-to-table school garden program at an inner city K-8 school in Denver. “The Fairmont garden was always a special and accessible place where all students were welcome and involved,” says Arna. But as in many such projects, finding volunteers to maintain the garden through the summer was a huge challenge.