Citizen Science Day is April 14, and these projects are a wonderful way for young children to continue their science learning by being part of a larger science effort doing “real science.” (For the record, I think the observations and thinking young children do is real science, the beginning of making sense of natural phenomena.) One citizen science project is the Pieris Project, named after the Latin name of the Cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae.
The Cabbage white butterfly is the earliest butterfly I see, cherished by preschool teachers because it is relatively easy for children to observe its lifecycle. The green larva hatch out of eggs laid by the mother butterfly on plants you may be familiar with, broccoli, cabbage, collards, and kale, all in mustard family. Collard seedlings can be planted now to attract the mother Cabbage white butterfly to lay her eggs where children can see them. You will notice when the babies hatch because they eat holes in the leaves, the reason why this species is an agricultural pest.
Plant the collard seedlings and check them daily for the tiny eggs. If you find an egg, the entire leaf can be cut from the plant and put in a vase for close observation indoors so all children can see it and the tiny, tiny caterpillar when it hatches and begins to eat. Additional collard leaves purchased at a grocery must be washed thoroughly to wash away any pesticides before being added to the vase as an additional food source. See more details in the April 2007 Early Years column or in chapter 23 of Science Learning in the Early Years. (NSTA Press 2016).
The SciStarter listing of this citizen science project says, “Please consider helping this important effort, because through your collections of this butterfly we can learn a great deal about the ecology and evolution of butterflies more broadly as well as how human activities (climate change, pollution, etc.) are having an effect on biodiversity.”
Your children will learn that people all over the world are working to help scientists learn. They may be too young to understand the details of this project that seeks to answer: 1) How has the cabbage white butterfly adapted (evolved) to the new environments it invaded? 2) Where did these butterflies (those found in the US) come from? and 3) How has the “phenotype” (color, shape, size) of the cabbage white butterfly changed as it has moved into new environments? But even two-year-olds aren’t too young to be interested in small animals such as butterflies.
And they will learn about the animal-plant relationship, part of the Next Generation Science Standards, K-LS1-1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, 1-LS1-2 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, and K-ESS3-1 Earth and Human Activity.
Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 and every day as we connect young children to the natural environment. Weekly walks over the same ground or city block will help children see the changes in nature and the human built environment as the seasons change. Where does the sunshine fall this week compared to where it could be seen last month? The shadows of buildings that blocked the sunlight in winter months may have shifted! Trees leafing out and bees and ants appearing are other examples of seasonal changes children may notice. Feeling like a part of nature, rather than apart from it, helps children begin to notice connections between their actions and what happens in the environment.
One way we can make a small change in our practices to make the environment a healthier place is to begin using paper straws instead of plastic straws for children’s engineering and art projects. Plastic takes a long time to break down so the straws we use today will be around for years, in landfills or dispersed in nature where animals are endangered. Researchers at the University of California, Davis are investigating whether microplastic debris is toxic to marine organisms and if toxic impacts can transfer up the food chain.
Paper straws fall apart faster than plastic ones and that’s a good thing!