Students Create Monarch Garden at Morton Freshman Center

By Cheryl Scott

Students at Morton High School worked to solve the real-world problem of the declining monarch population by building a 5,000-square-foot monarch habitat and native garden at the Freshman Center in late April.

Science teacher Kevin O’Toole began work on the project last spring, when he started rewriting a course for the biology department to follow the Next Generation Science Standards. The standards involve shifting the education from discrete facts to teaching engineering design and how scientists create solutions to real-world problems. He noticed that the school’s garden at the time was not suitable for monarchs because of the lack of milkweed, and his students agreed by giving the garden a failing grade for monarchs for one assignment.

Five of O’Toole’s science classes worked on a project to turn the 5,000-square-foot piece of unused turf into a garden where monarchs would thrive. He divided the students into 29 teams of four, with each team having a student scientist, technologist, engineer and mathematician for each of the STEM disciplines. The 29 teams competed for the design of the project, with one team winning the class vote and school’s vote. The students also presented their designs and papers on monarchs at a school exhibition.

On Saturday, April 28, about 200 people – students, family members, teachers and community members – gathered at the Freshman Center to turn students’ design for the garden into reality by spreading mulch, creating a dry creekbed, building benches, adding a screech owl house and bee boxes. In the classroom, students had been growing three species of plants for the garden that are host plants for monarchs: milkweed, butterfly weeds, and wild perennial lupines. The class also ordered 40 other species from a plant nursery and chose a variety, so that nectar plants would bloom throughout the whole growing season and allow pollinators to feed all year long.

“It really couldn’t have gone any better,” O’Toole said about the completion of the project.

O’Toole said the monarch project was a challenging curriculum that involved a lot of work. His fear was that students wouldn’t want to do the curriculum. He switched off between the traditional curriculum and the monarch curriculum, and some students asked if they could only work on the monarch project.

In addition to supporting the monarch population through the garden and education, another point of project was to connect students and community members to nature, O’Toole said.

When O’Toole is outside watering the plants, he notices students are hanging out there already.

“Kids today don’t have a lot of opportunities to connect with nature,” O’Toole said. “When you give the opportunity to them, they have curiosity … they would much rather be outside and be surrounded by life.”

The opportunities will expand in the future because O’Toole said a long-term goal of the project is to raise monarchs in the classroom, tag them, and have the students work as citizen scientists. He also plans to have next year’s science students design another garden that could be built on more unused turf at the Morton Freshman Center and possibly get more involved in the administrative side of the process.

The Morton Freshman Center monarch garden is located at 1801 S. 55th Ave. in Cicero, off of 16th Street, for any community members who would like to view the garden.