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Students Pick Up Needles to Take on Pesky Purple Plant

4/19/2004

By CHRISTOPHER SYMINGTON Record-Journal staff

He's not exactly the handiest with the needle and thread. He did make a pillow in sewing class but admitted the experience wasn't helping him much on Thursday. Trevor Kelly, though, didn't mind running a few stitches through a large piece of bridal veil, if it meant he would not have to look at his texbooks for a while. "This is definitely a good project," the Moran Middle School seventh-grader said. "This is definitely more hands-on. We're doing at least 75 percent of it." Or more, if Keri Carbone has her way. All four of her science classes are beginning work on building what she calls "beetle cages," the breeding grounds for the Galerucella beetle. The classes are spending time learning about how the beetle is being used to reduce the threatening population of the purple loosestrife, an invasive plant that has dominated wetlands and disrupted ecosystems around the state for years. The Quinnipiac River Watershed Association, along with the University of Connecticut Department of Plant Sciences, introduced the beetles into loosestrife-populated areas five years ago because the plant is a natural food source for the tiny beetles both of which are native to Europe and Asia. Nearly 20 of her students attended an informational meeting with members of the watershed association and representatives from UConn, who showed residents how to raise the beetles on their own property. The classes expect to breed between 24,000 and 36,000 beetles from just 24 meshy cages with about 15 parent beetles in each soft-topped cage. They will then be released into loosestrife-infested wetlands this summer. "This is a perfect way to show them this, rather than just talk about it," Carbone said. "It's a great science project because they're creating something, they're growing something and they have to raise something." Carbone's class focuses on population in the environment, and when she heard that the ecologists were calling on the public to help raise the beetles, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to give her class a hands-on look at how science really works on a local level. "When we're talking about population and overcrowding, and this plant is doing that, I jump all over it," she said. Soon, the students will go out into wetlands and dig up loosestrife plants, transplant them into pots and place several parent beetles on the plant. A class of nearly 30 was finishing work on stitching together the meshy cover that will keep the beetles inside, growing and feeding on a loosestrife. None of the students claimed to be very good with their stitching skills, and many wanted to finish and move on to the next phase of the project painting the pots. "I think it's fun," said Michelle Spiteri, 12. "It's more of us getting to do stuff instead of just listening to a lecture." The entire project will last about three months before the classes release the beetles into the wetlands. Seeing it through is something different for the students, Carbone said. They like immediate results, and the experiment will show them that science is sometimes a slow process. It was nearly four years before ecologists started seeing progress as a result of the beetles' importation. The project, dubbed "Beetlemania" will also get recognition from the entire school, she hopes. Students were asked to design Beetlemania posters, and the classes will vote on the best one to be enlarged and displayed near the school's entrance. The beetle cages will be put in the sunniest spot on school grounds, along with another poster explaining the experiment. For the students, it's a fun way to learn, and one student even said it was a nice break from, well, "science." Twelve-year-old Chris Massaro's comment was a bit sarcastic, but proof that the students are learning. "We're keeping the loosestrife plants at a stable population level," Chris said. Carbone said she is hoping the project will get students excited enough to talk to their parents about it, further spreading the awareness of the problem and the efforts to correct it. "Sometimes it's hard to get information out of kids at home," she said. "Maybe they'll be talking about it and say, 'Hey, we're raising beetles.' It fosters more communication at home."


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