HIGHLAND PARK – The sixth graders joyfully screamed as they released 20 butterflies into the air. This simple childhood pleasure came not from play but months of research during a school effort to save Monarch butterflies from extinction.
“I didn’t realize that Monarch butterflies fly 3,000 miles from our homes here to Mexico and their population has decreased by 90 percent,” said Dr. Mark Nolan Hill of Highland Park. “Last year the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI) made the Mayors Monarch Pledge to all of the cities in Canada and the U.S. to save the Monarch butterfly migration.”
Hill thought this would be a perfect theme for Project Citizen and called it “The Doomed Butterfly – Save The Monarch Butterfly Migration.” Project Citizen is a national program that teaches civic education and public policy. Dr. Hill, a surgeon and professor of surgery at the University of Chicago Medical School, began coordinating Project Citizen locally 16 years ago after his daughter Linden volunteered his services when she was a student at Elm Place School.
Hill voluntarily represents Highland Park in the GLSLCI, a bi-national coalition of 129 U.S. and Canadian mayors and officials involved with ecologic issues of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. The organization was founded in 2003 by former Mayor Richard M. Daley (Chicago) and former Mayor David Miller (Toronto).
“The Monarch butterflies are very involved with pollinating, and this makes food needed for us and wildlife,” said Hill. “More than one-third of the food we eat requires pollinators to grow, and the cities provide a pivotal role of protection by making Monarch butterfly habitats, watching pesticides and trying to make the environment better.”
Hill said the students spent the year researching Monarch butterflies, and he visited the sixth-grade classrooms to discuss the project. Then the students presented their material to parents, community and a panel at a simulative legislative hearing on May 12 at the Elm Place School auditorium.
“The students blew us away on May 12 and panelist Mayor Nancy Rotering was taking notes for our city,” said Hill. He added that the students built and painted butterfly houses, similar to birdhouses, and he gave one to the mayor, who told him she would have it mounted in front of Highland Park City Hall.
Hill also presided on the panel with Rotering. Other panelists included GLSLCI Executive Director David Ullrich; Racine Mayor John Dickert, president of GLSLCI; Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, GLSLCI board of directors; psychologist Dr. Richard Markin, and Highland Park Police Chief Paul Shafer.
Hill said the other mayors and Ullrich were pleased to receive the butterfly houses that the Elm Place students crafted with the aid of Chip Shilkus, STEM teacher.
During the May 12 hearing, each sixth-grade student came on the stage and spoke for 30 seconds, presenting his or her aspect of Project Citizen with the Monarch butterfly.
“The 11-year-olds will never forget this learning experience, and their maturity level was very impressive,” said Hill. “They brought up genetic modification, pharmacology in respect to pesticides, environmental aspects in respect to their habitat, mechanical issues and metamorphosis from the caterpillar to the butterfly.”
Hill shared some of the students’ solutions to save Monarch butterflies:
- Develop habitats in the city where you plant milkweed. If everyone planted milkweed, butterflies would flourish, because they would be able to lay their eggs and eat
- Build a butterfly house or buy one to facilitate the butterflies to come in the area
- Be careful not to over-pesticide the area, because you’ll kill butterflies. There are some pesticides that do not harm Monarch butterflies.
Hill said the students enjoyed playing with the butterflies, helping ecology, and creating the butterfly houses.
“They are overwhelmed that I will be presenting their work in June to hundreds of mayors in Canada and the U.S. at a televised annual meeting in Montreal,” he said.
Some of the students presented Project Citizen at the May 22 Highland Park City Council meeting, where they were to receive a Mayoral Proclamation.
“This year has been the most exciting of all the years of Project Citizen, and the students’ passion is wonderful,” said Hill. “Growing up, my father would always ask me what have you done productive today, and when I became a father, I’d ask my kids the same question. I’m proud that these students have really made a difference in this Project Citizen effort.”