Caterpillars teach climate change

May 7, 2010 3:36:44 PM PDT
A group of Chicago first-graders at Augustus H. Burley Elementary School are learning how even the tiniest creatures can have a big impact on the planet.

"We're trying to study about caterpillars and so all of my friends are working on these projects to talk about the butterfly stages and stuff," said Rhese Abrams, 7.

They are barely as long as your fingertip now, but these caterpillars will soon become beautiful butterflies.

"First it becomes an egg. Then the egg turns into a caterpillar. Then it turns into a grown up caterpillar and it turns into a chrysalis. Then it's into a butterfly," said Griffin Daya, 7.

Adaya and his classmates have been learning about caterpillars for months now -- ever since his teacher, Kristin Ziemke Fastabend, took his first-grade class on a virtual trip to the Louisiana Bayou.

"I was able to Skype back into my classroom and web conference with my students and also hosted a blog were I shared my experience of inquiry, science and technology," Ziemke-Fastabend said.

Fastabend took an Earthwatch Teaching Fellowship earlier this year to study climate change through caterpillars.

"Each day we would kayak into the swamp and do leaf counts or caterpillar counts on the population and then we would gather samples to bring back to the lab to identify," Ziemke-Fastabend said.

The researchers are trying to track changes in caterpillar activity, which is often a predictor of future changes in other plant and animal populations. It was a great learning experience for Ziemke-Fastabend and her students.

"I'd assign homework over the computer where students had to go and do a leaf count in their yard or do an estimation of the number of leaves on a tree and then after I'd post a blog and I'd call into the classroom," said Ziemke-Fastabend.

It's that kind of interaction that helped Ziemke-Fastabend win a Kohl McCormick Early Education Teaching Award (kohlmccormickawards.org).

"If what we want to do as a city, as a state, as a nation is change the way that we treat the planet, so that the planet will continue beyond us, you got to start young. She gets that. That's why she's working with the youngest children," said Lou Bank, Dolores Kohl Education Foundation.

The winning teachers get a $5,000 prize for themselves and an additional $1,000 for their school.


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