YCCS Milkweed Monitoring: Summer Internship for High Schoolers
Case: Milkweed & Monarch Monitoring
Milkweed-Monarch Interactions for Learning and Conservation
Project (MMMILC) is a long-term ecological monitoring
research project run out of UC Davis. The goal of the project is
to better understand the interactions between milkweed plants and
monarch butterflies that rely on the plants
through multiple life stages. In a changing climate, long-term
monitoring of native pollinators is crucial for learning more
about entire ecosystems. Each summer, a group of high school
interns participate in MMMILC activities as part of a
career-focused internship program run by the Center for Land-Based
Learning (CLBL). Monitoring activities take place at a
suburban green belt. Interns come from cities surrounding the
greenbelt. After training and a certification exam, they visit
the site weekly to assess the status of milkweed plants and take
photographs for a group blog. Dr. Yang writes a weekly update
with ongoing analysis of the data interns have collected.
Species or system studied: milkweed and monarch
Once a week, the interns collect data on milkweed size,
development, and monarch interaction. They count and measure
stems, pods, and umbels, determine the percentage of the plant
that is green and the percentage of leaves that have been damaged
by herbivory, and document presence of monarch eggs and
Research site: Suburban green belt.
Milkweed plants were planted two years ago along a section of a
former agricultural irrigation channel. Restored to provide
recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat, the
greenbelt lies between agricultural fields and a suburban
neighborhood. Local residents walk, run, ride bikes, and walk
their dogs on the paths that run alongside the restored area.
Participants: High school students.
In the summer, 6-18 high school students, ages 15-18, spend one
day a week with MMMILC as part of a paid work development
internship. Participants come from a range of racial, ethnic and
economic backgrounds. While some come from the small city where
the greenbelt is located, a majority come from a larger urban
Structure: Summer internship.
The participants collect data during the summer which contribute
to a larger year-round project created and run by UC Davis
entomologist, Dr. Louie Yang. Participants are trained by Dr.
Yang and project staff, then mentored by undergraduate
students for the first few days of fieldwork. They conduct
monitoring with support from CLBL educators and input data at a
computer lab on the university’s campus.
Duration: 4 months.
Youth interns participate for approximately 3.5 months over the
summer. Some interns continue longer, monitoring during
spring and fall, or returning to the program for a second or
third summer. The MMMILC Project has been running in
partnership with Growing Green for two years and will continue to
be funded through at least 2017.
Institution: University-Community Partnership.
MMMILC is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research
project housed at the University of California, Davis. Intensive
summer monitoring is accomplished through partnership with a
local environmental education organization, the Center for
Land-Based Learning, and their summer internship program, Growing
Green. The university research project’s goal is to introduce
interns to science research experience and collect long-term
monitoring data. CLBL’s internship exposes youth to a
variety of career opportunities and tools to promote college and
Each week, at least one youth intern is assigned to create a blog
entry with pictures taken during data collection. As part
of their broader internship, interns also work on a local organic
farm and attend community college classes. For the MMMILC
project, Dr. Yang and his undergraduate students partnered with
the city and several other local organizations to plant several
hundred native milkweed plants in the greenbelt.
Several resources were created for this project, including – a
training session presentation, monitoring certification exam,
monitoring protocol, and a monarch larvae identification
sheet. Check back here soon for more details and downloads.
Through in-depth case studies of diverse YCCS projects,
we have documented youth-centered key practices that
are effective in promoting learning and environmental
science agency. Click the headers below to learn more about what
those key practices look like in this particular case.
Sharing Findings with Outside Audiences
A public blog challenges interns to identify what’s
important and communicate clearly and effectively.
Throughout the program, interns often shared pictures of
caterpillars and other interesting insects with the project
scientist and on social media. Additionally, each week a
different MMMILC intern took on the role of “blogger” and shared
a highlight or anecdote from that day’s monitoring experience.
There was little structure to the blog, giving interns the
opportunity to write about whatever aspect of the data collection
and field experience they wanted. For some youth, this offered a
creative means by which to share their thoughts publicly, though
in some cases other dismissed or ignored the responsibility.
One intern, Duncan, showed much enthusiasm for this role. While
initially unsure about what to write in his first blog, in his
second entry Duncan was excited to share the experience of
finding an intriguing caterpillar. After speaking to Dr. Yang
about his unusual discovery and learning more about it, he used
careful scientific language when describing the caterpillar
stages through metamorphosis and encouraged other interns to read
the blog entry. Later in the program, Duncan also volunteered to
co-write a third blog with a friend, showing the friend how to
add pictures and make the post live.
The on-going process of making observations in the field and
describing these findings in the blog allowed students to freely
share what they were learning and experiencing each week. Blog
entries ranged from noting caterpillar discoveries, sharing
reflections on teamwork, and describing the challenges of field
work on hot days. These examples not only illustrate incremental
steps towards science learning and identity development, as in
Duncan’s case–but also demonstrate that youth want to share
their socio-emotional experiences with outside audiences as well.
Ensuring High Data Quality
Lessons learned from early mistakes: forming diligence
and identity in QA/QC
Over the course of the program, interns became increasingly
confident with the data collection protocol and settled into a
familiar monitoring routine. They knew exactly what had to be
done and could begin work with little to no instruction.
Likewise, the youth became aware of the need to help peers
monitor more labor intensive sections – those with bigger plants
and/or more caterpillars.
Charged with monitoring several hundred individual milkweed
plants, interns learned it was necessary to consistently check
that they were keeping accurate track of plants. This included
paying attention to numbered tags attached to the plants
themselves and the corresponding number recorded on the data
sheet. After a particular incident where interns had to go back
and re-measure plants a second time after they were recorded
incorrectly, they discussed the importance of reliable data and
became diligent about paying close attention to plant numbers
throughout the rest of the program. During another monitoring
event, three of the participants took on the role of teaching the
monitoring protocol to two visiting undergraduates. The youth
answered questions and demonstrated techniques they had both
learned and refined.
A major component of this project included online data entry.
Interns worked in pairs or individually to enter the week’s data
into an online spreadsheet. This experience offered an
opportunity for these youth to take a second look at their
field recordings and sometimes led individuals to comment on or
question individual and peer data accuracy and quality. For
example, when Dr. Yang shared statistics on the interns’ average
monitoring time per plant, it led to a discussion about data
quality versus quantity. One youth pointed out her slower
monitoring speed was due to thorough measurement – throughout the
project this became a particular identity she took on and
justified for herself.
Opportunities like these – for discussion to focus around
specific situations and include youth voices – gave interns a
chance to more deeply understand how data quality could vary. how
it affected research, and how their actions played a role in it.
Interacting with Complex Social Ecological Systems
Weaving together new hands-on experiences in science,
place, and community
Youth interacted with the natural, built, and social environments
where they were monitoring. The site was located along a public
trail and passersby occasionally asked what interns were
investigating. Some people were familiar with milkweeds and
monarchs and shared positive reinforcement and encouragement for
what the group was doing. Several youth took the time to share
information about the project with interested individuals, while
others avoided conversation with strangers or talked about
unrelated things instead. Collectively, this wide range of
interaction and overall positive response from the public offered
interns choice in how they engaged with members of the public and
how to share the information about their work.
Many of the interns were unfamiliar with this type of restored
urban green space before participating in the project. Through
weekly monitoring, familiarity with the place developed and
allowed these youth to experience many different aspects of the
greenbelt over several months – from picnicking in the shade, to
picking in season figs, to witnessing significant phenological
changes in the milkweed plants and monarchs – and to understand
how restoration, community use, and environmental science
Data: Weekly milkweed size and development, monarch
presence, size, and life stage measurements
Why: The measurements are used to create
timelines for milkweed growth and development and for tracking
monarch arrival, growth and development. These timelines are
used to determine how monarchs are interacting with milkweed
plants over a long period of time. In this way, scientists hope
to determine if and how global climate change is influencing
Audience: University entomologist and the
graduate and undergraduate students in his lab. In order to
avoid any systematic bias in the data, interns are randomly
assigned each week to groups – however, this procedure
occasionally need to be been modified to ensure successful
Impact: Project activities contribute to a
large dataset used to determine impacts of global climate
change on species interactions, specifically monarchs and
milkweed. Scientific publications are expected after the
third year of data collection.
Group blog: 1-3 interns take pictures and write a
weekly blog entry on their monitoring activity
Why: Educate public about milkweed/monarch
observations and give interns a chance to reflect on the
measurements they are taking and their observations in the
field, as well as overall project experience.
Audience: Peers in the program. Other interns
read blog entries and compare their observations to those of
interns working in different sections of the monitored area.
Audience: University Researchers. The project
scientist reads blog entries and gains insight into what
interns are observing in the field.
Audience: General Public.
Impact: Opportunity for wider community to
learn about the monitoring project through the perspectives of
both the interns and Dr. Yang. The blog is also used by
Dr. Yang to communicate data findings in near real-time to the
interns on a weekly basis. Though the general public was
referenced as an audience, no readers or interaction with
readers outside the project is evident.
Outcomes & Evaluations
The goals of the MMMILC Project are to provide interns with
experience contributing to “real world research” and a
first-hand understanding of how science works.
However, these outcomes are not currently being evaluated
by MMMILC or CLBL.
Data Collection: Goals for learning
included how to follow the study protocol utilizing datasheets
a folding ruler and calipers, identify milkweed plants and
their relevant structures, and identify monarchs in all their
life stages: egg, larva, chrysalis, adult. Educators used
pictures, as well as living and preserved examples of each
plant structure and monarch life stage to help interns identify
them. To demonstrate proficiency interns practiced going
through the protocol and measuring and recording data using
potted plants with monarchs on them. To assess proficiency,
MMMILC gave students a paper-and-pencil monitoring exam, that
interns were required to pass before doing fieldwork.
Data Entry: Interns learned to carefully
enter their data using online spreadsheets. Proficiency
was evaluated and supported through observation by the lead