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Teachers From Across the Nation Travel to Your Metroparks to Learn Interactive Ways to Teach Students About Environmental Health

Monarch butterfly on a common milkweed plantThis summer, the nature center at Lake St. Clair Metropark hosted over 20 educators from across the country, where the Milkweed Adaptation Research and Education Network (MAREN), based out of St. Olaf College in Minnesota, presented a series of protocols and a Great-Lakes-wide database to help teachers and students explore milkweed in depth. Unlike flighted monarchs, the firmly-rooted milkweed plants provide ongoing opportunities for students and teachers to explore a variety of questions about phenology, invertebrates, and even climate. Researchers explained the climate change indicators that can be identified in milkweed, and how students of all ages can help identify and record them into a national study. Milkweed serves as a resource for climate change studies because of its sensitivity to pollution. The plant can reflect signs of damage resulting from ozone (like dark polka dots visible on the leaves), road salt, temperature, and other factors.

In late June 2022, a network of informal educators, classroom teachers, and university faculty gathered in a combination of virtual and in-person workshops to explore these protocols and consider ways to make these explorations work for their students in the classroom. Lake St. Clair Metropark Nature Center in Macomb County served as a “Milkweed Hub” for hands-on practice identifying and exploring milkweed plants, which are found in abundance throughout the park and in its Monarch Waystation areas.

Monarch Waystations are patches of habitat where the endangered Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed, a native plant that serves as the only host for this specific species of butterflies to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Scientists and educators are now studying these milkweed plans because of their unique climate change indicators.

Participants took measurements of stems and leaves, made observations of the umbel-flowers, and examined signs of invertebrate feeding on the plants. They discovered multiple different phenological stages. Some plants seemed to be home to more creatures than others, and some plants seemed to show evidence of environmental damage.

Along with the outdoor student-led questioning and hands-on learning in the milkweed patch, the project has a larger community science component. All the data collected by students from their local classroom or nature center plants is uploaded into a shared database to promote deeper questioning about how milkweed plant phenology changes across the Great Lakes through time, how pollinators compare across the region, how the invertebrate community changes with milkweed growth stage, and how milkweed plants from different climate zones compare.

“Michigan has so many natural resources that aid in ongoing essential research on climate change and other environmental issues,” said Jennifer Jaworski, Metroparks Chief of Interpretive Services. “And our interpreters are eager to share these resources with our neighbors and with environmental experts from all over the nation.” The park also hosts public educational programs for anyone interested in learning about and stewarding the natural world around us.

Your Metroparks are also working with a research team to develop a climate action plan that prioritizes and addresses the current and future impacts of climate change in the Metroparks and the region. Climate change will greatly impact Metroparks operations and the way visitors seek to use the parks. The Metroparks take the stewardship of their more than 24,000 acres of parkland very seriously, and they want to engage community members in this work.

The first part of this process is inviting the public to participate in conversations about their climate related priorities and concerns to help further define the Metroparks role toward a sustainable green future. Focus groups are being held in-person and virtually now through December. Community members can register to share their opinions at

“Climate action is essential to all of our communities, and we recognize that the Metroparks are both impacted by it and play a vital role in future solutions. From stormwater management, to canopy cover, to creative solutions and more, the Metroparks are actively engaging in conversations that can lead to a more sustainable future” said Amy McMillan, director of the Metroparks. “Furthermore, we’re proud to equip educators across the nation with the knowledge and resources they need to educate and elevate our students as future environmental pioneers.”

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