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Capturing moths, and kids' curiosity about science

November 8, 2021 - College of Education communications

It turns out that moths make good science teachers.

That’s what Michigan State University researchers found when they started encouraging elementary students to capture the winged organisms in their own communities and ask novel questions.

Students in classroom reviewing a poster with moth specimens and information.

Like, are there more moths around houses that have pools? Or under deciduous trees?

The investigations help kids understand key concepts about ecosystems in which they live. But the excitement of the journey is more important than discovering the “right” answers.

“We open a window into science by providing students with opportunities to take responsibility for designing research, collecting data, debating ‘what counts’ as evidence—practices of science that are demoted to ‘correctness’ in many schools,” said MSU science education expert David Stroupe, who is collaborating with MSU entomologist and LBC Biology associate professor Peter White.

“Scientists rarely position children to shape knowledge practices in their field. Our project does that and we purposefully work to redistribute power and agency to everyone in the classroom.”

Now Stroupe and White plan to bring MothEd, as they call it, to more classrooms nationwide, thanks to a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Building on their previous research, they will partner with teachers to co-develop free digital learning materials and resources for educators to launch more moth investigations—and excitement about science—around the country. They will partner with colleagues from the Concord Consortium who will specialize in creating technology-assisted curricular materials.

Why moths?

There are nearly 11,000 species of moths in North America, but they are understudied by scientists of all ages—including kids.

“Moths are fantastic parts of the ecosystem. They play a tremendous role in transforming green plant matter and are food sources for birds and small mammals,” said White, associate professor in Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Entomology. His previous work with students and teachers led to the development of an inexpensive simple moth trap that can be made for $2 and used by virtually anyone, compared to $150 high-tech models White sometimes struggled to transport while conducting his own field work.

“This project could allow us to gather data and monitor moth diversity and abundance in different parts of the country,” White said. “And it’s fun, it’s getting out there and catching things and learning things about the ecosystem around them. You can’t do that as easily with birds or mammals.”

White and Stroupe first created and tested moth-related curricula with a sixth-grade teacher and students, then in elementary groups as young as second grade, using seed funding from the Science and Society at State, or S3, program at MSU.

Recent efforts to improve science learning under the Next Generation Science Standards include a greater expectation for students to learn authentic science practices, but there are still few resources to help teachers make this shift in meaningful ways. The free MothEd materials will help educators intentionally build an empowering science learning community.

“Providing students opportunities to take responsibility for knowledge practices is not spontaneous, random or lucky,” said Stroupe, associate professor and director of STEM teacher preparation for the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU. “Teachers can plan for, adapt and reflect on instructional practices that make it possible for their students to shape current and future science work.”

Five partnering teachers from Michigan and Massachusetts will help the research team finalize curriculum designs next summer before testing lessons in their classrooms during fall 2022.

Through a collaboration with MSU geography professor Raechel Portelli, the online learning platform also is expected to include a machine learning system that helps students’ identify moth species using ground-based imaging techniques.

Related links

MSU researchers also created Connected Bio, a set of technology-enhanced lessons for high school biology plus teacher resources, in collaboration with the Concord Consortium.

MothEd started as a collaboration with MacDonald Middle School teacher and MSU alumnus Rob Voigt.

This story originally posted by the Michigan State University College of Education on November 8, 2021.