COS 133-6 - Utilizing a distributed research project investigating local adaptation in common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to teach evolutionary ecology in grades 6-16

Thursday, August 10, 2017: 9:50 AM
B114, Oregon Convention Center
Emily K. Mohl, Olivia A. Sullivan and Samantha M. Peterson, Biology, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN
Background/Question/Methods: Course-based research projects offer benefits for students, including a better understanding of the nature of science and improved problem-solving, data-analysis, and/or scientific-argumentation skills. We are developing an authentic, distributed research project for grades 6-16 that motivates the study of evolution with a current conservation issue: the decline of the migrating population of the iconic monarch butterfly. Lessons highlight scientific disagreement about the role of milkweed availability as a cause of the monarch decline and reveal an important gap in our knowledge about milkweed: are populations locally-adapted, or do some populations outperform others everywhere? Participating institutions across the native range of common milkweed will conduct a transplant experiment to answer this question, working with students to measure how local and nonlocal milkweeds grow, reproduce, and interact with herbivores and pollinators. Students learn about evolutionary processes and their contribution to local adaptation as they make predictions and analyze data. Ultimately, we invite students to apply their learning to make arguments, supported by data, about whether to plant milkweed to support monarchs and how to select seeds for habitat restoration. To date, we have conducted small pilot studies to optimize methods and tested the lessons with school teachers (grades 6-12) in a workshop and college biology majors in a 200-level ecology class.

Results/Conclusions: Milkweed mortality was high during the first season in the field, likely due to competition with weeds, but we found no evidence of differential performance among populations. High variation among groups measuring the same plant suggests a need to practice and assess performance with protocols prior to data collection. Participants left the workshop feeling more familiar with the study organisms and questions, and students left the class with increased confidence in science process skills. The study of milkweed and monarchs seemed to attract and motivate teachers, but some biology majors found the problem trivial and not motivating. That said, biology majors were more likely to use ecological and evolutionary concepts and evidence in arguments about whether and how to plant milkweed, and they generated more diverse arguments than did science teachers. Next, we will revise the curriculum and protocols to improve reliability and assessment, conduct an expanded pilot study, and recruit more institutions for the full experiment.