The moth project: Investigating science together

July 26, 2016
MacDonald Middle School students Bailey and Quinton show off a rare catch, an Eight Spotted Forester, during their moth investigation project.

MacDonald Middle School students Bailey Nicholson and Quinton Wronikowski show off a rare catch, an Eight-spotted Forester, during their moth investigation project.

It turns out moths don’t like to fly in the cold. The sixth-graders in Rob Voigt’s classes discovered this after a few nights collecting moths in their backyards using traps they built at school.

While they were busy designing experiments to answer their questions about moths, a team of Michigan State University researchers were doing their own investigation of science teaching and learning.

“It weirds people out to hear I had no idea what was going to happen,” said assistant professor of teacher education David Stroupe. He co-taught the moth unit with Voigt, a two-time graduate of the College of Education, and entomologist Peter White, assistant professor of biology at MSU, using a pedagogical framework called Ambitious Science Teaching.

Current thinking on science learning, as outlined by the Next Generation Science Standards, encourages students to go beyond simply memorizing scientific facts and to learn the practices of science, like interpreting data and making arguments based on evidence. But Stroupe takes that a step further.

“We could just have kids pretend to be scientists,” said Stroupe, a former teacher and herpetologist (studying amphibians and reptiles). “But what if teachers and students actually develop and learn science together?”

The moth unit essentially turned Voigt’s East Lansing classroom into a functioning ecology lab for three weeks, starting with a demonstration on moth identification and pinning from White. Then the students built traps and captured moths, which can be an important indicator of environmental health. Based on their observations, each class came up with questions they wanted to investigate, such as whether moths are more prevalent near water. But as students began their nightly trapping routines, nature interfered. The temperatures dropped.

“It was a great illustration of the messiness of science,” said Stroupe. “Students got to see that, despite their best plans, teachers could not control the weather … and we had to make the best sense we could of the data collected.

Moth-project-1“Doing real science means giving students room to develop agency, allow them a voice. As teachers, we have to let go of the reins a little bit.”

After several days of moth trapping, journal entries showed increasing temperatures. And finally the numbers of trapped moths began increasing too. So it seemed very natural when, during whole-class reflection over the data, a student spoke up with the answer: “It’s obvious—the moths just like warmer temperatures!”

“I could have told them that at the beginning,” Voigt reflected later, “but it meant so much more coming from a student and derived from the data. I could see other students nodding in agreement.”

The team also included physics education researcher Marcos D. “Danny” Caballero and three students: Katie Glover, Joel Steward and Lydia Ross. The group hopes to eventually create a national dataset on moths in urban cityscapes using information collected by classrooms around the country. The project also provides a model for researchers and students to co-investigate other important ecological phenomena in communities.

Their work was funded by Science and Society at State, or S3, a program that provides seed grants to research and education projects at MSU that straddle the sciences and humanities. Stroupe co-founded S3 and is an advisory board member.

Learn more about the moth project: