In May 2012, Luther received a grant of $1.5 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The HHMI awarded the grant as part of its Preparing Future K–12 Teachers Program, which, says Luther professor of biology Scott Carlson, “increases the connection between future educators and scientists, between those bound for graduate school and those bound for the classroom.” After all, he says, “Educators who encounter research as an undergraduate prove to be more effective teachers.” And better teachers, of course, groom better future scientists.
The lion’s share of the four-year grant, according to Carlson, has gone toward summer research trios that take advantage of Luther’s engaged faculty and their willingness to collaborate with students. Each of the seven trios receiving funding this summer comprises one faculty advisor, one science student, and one educator (either a pre-service undergraduate education student or an educator already working as a high school or middle school teacher). Here we take a closer look at one of the trios, researching rare butterflies.
What would lead a well-adjusted middle school teacher to forsake an air-conditioned classroom for steep rocky slopes, surprise rattlesnakes, and fulsome chigger welts?
The tawny emperor, Juvenal’s duskywing, and the great spangled fritillary—in other words, the chance to survey hillside prairie butterflies at 13 sites in Allamakee County.
Sharon Heyer ’11, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science in Forest Lake, Minn., says she jumped at the chance to be the third party in professor of biology Kirk Larsen’s summer research trio. “As a teacher, it was kind of like, what do I do over the summer? Last summer I nannied and took classes. This year I could have taught summer school, but this far, far outweighed teaching summer school.”
In spite of Heyer’s enthusiasm, Larsen swears that it’s not some romantic daydream. “Running around chasing butterflies on a hill prairie isn’t really as easy as it looks.”
Nicole Powers ’14 verifies this. “People hear ‘butterflies,’ and they think, ‘Oh, you’re just running through pretty daffodil meadows.’ It’s not quite like that.”
Larsen explains about those hill prairies: “If you’re sideways, you’re kind of sliding out of your shoes, and you just can’t find a level spot to stand on. Some of these slopes are at least 45-degree angles, you’re trying to stay upright on this steep rocky slope with loose rock, and then there are rattlesnakes slithering around.”
Powers and Heyer both have cross-country training—in fact, they first met on Luther’s cross-country team—but Larsen promises that this didn’t have a bearing on his choosing them to work with him. “It just sort of worked out that I got really well-conditioned athletes,” he laughs.
The project, with all its athleticism and daring, was spurred by the personal collection of a local butterfly enthusiast named John Nehnevaj. In the 1980s, Nehnevaj recognized that hillside prairies were endangered ecosystems that housed specialist butterflies not found in other habitats. So he set about doing an extensive butterfly survey of various sites in Allamakee County.
Last fall, when Nehnevaj donated his 1980s butterfly collection to the college, Larsen noticed that it contained—in ample numbers—a species called the ottoe skipper, which is thought to be going extinct in the state of Iowa. So Larsen’s trio is revisiting the areas that Nehnevaj surveyed and collecting not only presence or absence data on this and other butterflies, but also abundance data, which means they’re counting the butterflies and bringing back select voucher samples (essentially proof that a species was actually spotted).
Not only did the group encounter the ottoe skipper, but they also found the Baltimore checkerspot, the wild indigo duskywing, the hickory hairstreak, and the (not-so-common) common roadside skipper, all of which are listed as threatened or of special concern in Iowa.
Spotting a rare species is a reward in itself, but the trio’s work is underpinned by a higher purpose. Larsen explains, “The Iowa DNR is really interested in this because they’re going to have a focus on butterflies in northeast Iowa next year, so we’re providing them with some important preliminary data. And I know that the DNR has talked to the landowner of one of the sites we’re visiting about possibly purchasing it for preservation, so if we’re able to find some of those species at this site, it will provide a little more incentive to preserve it.”
Heyer, the middle-school teacher, also thinks the research will enrich her classroom: “I’m seeing a lot of ways that I can incorporate this into my units, especially my seventh-grade life science ecology unit. We do a lot on interactions between various organisms and plants, and we can also talk about different species of butterflies and how they’ve had to evolve to survive.”
Powers, who plans to pursue graduate study in biology, says that the research has really sharpened her analytical thinking and observational skills. “I never really noticed butterflies before, but they’re everywhere. On a run over the Fourth of July, I was like, ‘White admiral! Mourning cloak! Comma! Tiger swallowtail!’”
In general, Larsen says, “I just want my students to realize there’s a huge part of the natural world that they’ve never really noticed before—the insects, which are well over two-thirds of all species of organisms, yet so few people realize they’re even out there.” Once you realize that, Larsen says, you can get down to the nitty-gritty. “You’re trying to figure out, does it have dots here, does it have dots there, does it have a little bar here or a little bar there, what about the underside of the wings versus the topside of the wings? And you have to start noticing these details, so it really does force students to improve their observational skills significantly.”
Larsen crosses his fingers “that we’ll find more of these threatened and endangered species, and that our results will help the state to move forward with the management and even acquisition of some of these habitats in northeast Iowa.” He pauses a moment, then adds, “Without this Howard Hughes grant support, we sure wouldn’t be doing this this summer.”