Bringing Nature (Mealworms) to the Classroom

Reader Contribution by Shannon Mach
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 “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature (p.159, 2005).” This is one of my favorite quotes from, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. This book is an important reminder of what many of us have come to accept as fact; the idea that our country’s children are losing touch with the simple wonders of our world. Children are the future of this planet, so their escalating detachment from nature is of great concern—especially in light of the current insect crisis indicating a massive decline in numbers. If we truly aim to help this planet, we must endeavor to connect our youngest population with nature to build a bridge to a future filled with hope.

With this in mind, as the creator of Serendipity (FB Group), I am vested in our members who bring nature to the classroom. We commend the teachers who raise caterpillars with their students; the ones who share the magical world of insects. We are grateful to the teachers who awaken the imagination of the children; the ones who tell the tale of the Monarch butterflies’ long journey to Mexico. Moreover, we are heartened by the educators who create school butterfly gardens; the ones who show students that seeds sprout into plants and hope. With this in mind, today’s blog will focus on one group member’s inspirational story; a story of how the somewhat lowly mealworm is able to provide a unique and engaging learning environment, offer amazing therapeutic opportunities—and connect children to the natural world.

Michele Morgan is an Occupational Therapist and Transition Coordinator.  She works directly with elementary and high school students at Warren Woods Public Schools. The vision of their Special Services Department is to create a collaborative environment where all educators embrace every learner to successfully reach their full potential. As a self-described advocate for environmental education, Michele first became interested in mealworms in 2013. The mealworm, Tenebrio molitor, is actually the larval form of a flour beetle. The life cycle is as follows: Egg, larvae (mealworm), pupae, and imago (adult beetle).   

Photo by Michele Morgan depicting the life-cycle of the mealworm.

After introducing mealworms, as an organic food for her own chickens and quail, Michele realized that these creatures could also be used as part of an engaging treatment modality for students with special needs. Mealworms are a good choice for schools: They are cold tolerant, they are easy to breed, and they do not require elaborate care. Moreover, mealworms have the unique ability to digest non-biodegradable expandable polystyrene foam (what we often call Styrofoam). This is a truly fascinating environmental concept well-worth exploring within an educational setting. Armed with her knowledge and several donated plastic bins, the mealworms headed to school with Michele.

 

Photo by Michele Morgan of the mealworm setup.

Mealworms Transform Styrofoam into Nutrient-Rich Fertilizer

The students began to sort and breed mealworms and they gained many unique learning opportunities in the areas of science, math, and pre-vocational skill development. Through the combined efforts of Michele, and her students, grant money was awarded to support the purchase of technology-driven insect hives (Livinfarms). A 3-D printer has also become part of the mealworm program and has been used to create tools that fit the needs of the students. The mealworm program results in skill-set growth with students reaping numerous therapeutic benefits including sensory stimulation. Also, of great importance is the connection the students form with the insects; and the hands-on knowledge they gain about environmental issues and creative solutions. One example: The students transfer Styrofoam from the cafeteria to the mealworm habitat as food. Days later, the children see that the Styrofoam has been consumed and has become nutrient-rich fertilizer in the form of frass (excrement of insect larvae). 

Photo by Michele Morgan of mealworms feasting on Styrofoam.

Mealworms Provide Therapeutic Benefits

At an elementary level, students in special education develop upper body strength and stability, as they kneel to explore the mealworm habitat. They gain fine motor-skill dexterity as they sift through the bedding; and sort the beetles, mealworms, and pupae. The high school students gain important real-life experience as they prepare to navigate the transition from school to adulthood and real-world employment. The high school students collect the mealworm frass, monitor habitat conditions, feed, sort, weigh, and package the insects for local feed and pet stores. The mealworms the students raise serve as food for reptiles, hedgehogs, and chickens. The mealworms also become food for many species of songbirds; like the ones that frequent our own backyard habitats. Without doubt, the program teaches students about the viable side-businesses, or micro-enterprise, associated with mealworm farming.

 

Photo by Michele Morgan of a custom 3-d printed sorting tool made to use with students with sensory issues and to help accurately size and sort worms.

Environmental Education: Changing the Way Children Think & Connecting Them With Nature

When Michele Morgan brought her mealworms to school, she offered children a very important gift. Not only do these students have unique opportunities to acquire academic learning, gain life skills, and make therapeutic strides—they also gain an understanding and lasting respect for the environment. At this time, in addition to mealworm farming, Michele’s students are breeding night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) in a commercial wigwam. The students in pre-vocational classes use the worm castings to fertilize houseplants at multiple buildings throughout the district. The worms are fed scraps from the commercial foods department. Furthermore, the students are growing herbs and managing an aquaponics system that combines aquaculture and hydroponics for a reduced-cost alternative to indoor gardening. Like many of us, Michele has her eyes on the future and continues to look for new ways to bring nature to school. Currently, Michele is planning to work with students to start native nectar and milkweed plants from seeds. Her goal is to add these beneficial pollinator plants to district garden beds; and to share the plants with families and other interested gardeners.

When I created Serendipity, my goal was to encourage others to connect with nature and discover the simple joys of a garden. I believe we cherish and save the things we love, so I hope others discover the beauty of insects, pollinators, birds, plants, and wildlife.  As a group we encourage others to become involved in their own unique way. I am optimistic that Michele’s story will inspire positive change, raise awareness, and remind us of the importance of sharing nature with others—and most importantly remind us that connecting children with nature benefits the child’s health and well being—and provides great hope for our planet’s future.  

Join us at Facebook to learn more about creating backyard habitat for wildlife, the benefits of native plants, host plants to attract butterflies , water features for the garden, planting for regional birds, and many other interesting topics.  

References and Additional Resources

http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/ 

https://www.livinfarms.com/

https://livinfarms.helpsite.com/categories/5272-2-introduction-to-mealworms

https://www.foamequipment.com/blog/bid/33863/What-Is-Styrofoam

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/magazine/insect-apocalypse.html

https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/19/europe/insect-decline-germany/index.html

https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/beginners/attracting-birds/laura-erickson-on-insect-population-decline/


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