Milkweed in the Classroom - Lesson Set

Milkweed in the Classroom logo in front of photo of milkweed plants
Resource Summary
The Milkweed in the Classroom lessons are designed to help students investigate a real-world phenomenon that is connected with students’ interests and experiences. In this unit, the monarch migration will act as the anchoring phenomenon and students will investigate the guiding question, “How has the monarch migration has changed over time and why?”
Classroom Instruction
Systems Thinking
Informed Decision Making
Community Science
Science Standard:
3-LS4-3  3-LS4-4 


Background and Introduction

The Monarch butterfly migration is one of the most spectacular natural phenomena on Earth. Each fall, Monarch butterflies leave their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada to travel south (up to 3,000 miles!) to their overwintering home in central Mexico. As conditions become unsuitable for their survival in northern latitudes, monarchs leave behind their feeding and breeding areas and fly south to look for a safe place to spend the winter. Millions of monarchs will spend the winter huddled together on the branches of oyamel fir trees high in the mountains of central Mexico. In the spring, surviving Monarch butterflies will begin heading north once again, but the journey north does not belong to a single generation of monarchs. As they travel, they will mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants. These eggs will hatch and the emerging larvae will gorge themselves on milkweed plants before pupating and transforming into adult butterflies. As the life cycle repeats, new generations of monarchs will gradually move north. As many as four to five generations of butterflies will be needed to reach their final destination in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Monarchs face daunting challenges as they migrate.

During this long and difficult journey, monarchs face numerous challenges including predators, poor weather, and changes to the landscape that impact their ability to find suitable habitat. Monarchs mainly rely on prairies, meadows, roadsides, and grasslands to survive. Intact prairies provide monarch populations with necessary habitat to survive including nectar-producing wildflowers for adult monarchs to feed upon and various milkweed species to lay their eggs upon and feed their young. Without healthy prairie habitat, the monarch migration faces an uncertain future.

Habitat restoration is essential to secure monarch migrations for future generations.

Once native prairie covered almost 40% of the U.S. and provided ample habitat for monarchs and other prairie wildlife, but today, prairie ecosystems are some of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. While large scale habitat restoration and conservation projects are generally undertaken by government agencies and conservation organizations, small scale efforts are also important. Backyards and schoolyards can provide small, but essential pockets of prairie to support monarchs on their migration.

How can you and your students get involved?

Milkweed in the Classroom is collaborative Nebraska Environmental Trust grant-funded project lead the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Prairie Plains Resource Institute, and Pheasants Forever, Inc. that supports teachers and students in growing milkweed in the classroom and assisting in local restoration efforts. For more information on Milkweed in the Classroom kits, please see the Pheasants Forever, Inc. Milkweed in the Classroom website or contact Anna Swerczek.

Lesson 1 | What is migration and why do Monarch butterflies migrate?
  • Identify challenges facing Monarch butterflies during their migration.
  • Recognize that the purpose of animal migration is to move from one place to another to make survive and reproduction possible..
Lesson 2 | Is the Monarch butterfly migration getting easier?
  • Analyze a graph of overwintering monarch butterfly counts
  • Recognize that the number of monarch butterflies at the overwintering site in Mexico is declining over time.
Lesson 3 | What does good habitat look like for Monarch butterflies?
  • Research Monarch butterfly survival needs
  • Draw a picture of a suitable Monarch butterfly habitat.
Lesson 4 | What is a prairie and who lives there?
  • Recognize features shared by different prairie ecosystems.
Lesson 5 | How can images of a person or place over time help us to see changes?
  • Identify patterns of developed and undeveloped land use in satellite images.
Lesson 6 | How have Tallgrass prairies changed over time?
  • Make observations of historic vs. current tallgrass prairie land cover.
  • Identify pattern of declining tallgrass prairie land cover.
Lesson 7 | How can we use what we have learned to make an argument for how the Monarch migration is changing and why?
  • Construct a scientific argument to explain how and why the Monarch butterfly migration has changed over time.
Lesson 8 | How can humans help the Monarchs as they migrate?

Curriculum Connections

Next Generation Science Standards

  • 3-LS4-3 Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
  • 3-LS4-4 Make a claim about the merit of a solution to a problem caused when the environment changes and the types of plants and animals that live there may change.