The Brainy Yaks, a competitive robotics team for middle school students at the Cannon School in Concord, are tackling a different kind of problem with their latest project – saving the bat population.
The team, who competed in the First Lego League Regional Competition on Nov. 20, placed high and advanced to the State Championships, which took place Jan. 17 at NC A&T University in Greensboro. In addition to building a robot that is capable of completing tasks, the team was required to create an in-depth and creative research presentation. The team picked bats.
“Every year the competition has a theme and this year, it was animal allies,” said Leigh Northrup, dean of innovation and technology and Brainy Yak advisor.
“The team was fascinated by bats and decided that would be a great area to focus on,” said Northrup.
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They did research and discovered just how important bats are – protecting over 500 species of plants including coffee, beets, citrus, rice, tomatoes, cotton, corn and strawberries. They also propagate cacao, figs and black pepper, as well as pollinate agave and wild bananas.
It’s estimated bats save U.S. farmers $23 billion annually in pesticides, reduce crop damage and help control the insect population.
“Then we discovered they were becoming endangered due to loss of habitat,” said Maddie Reiss, a seventh-grader from Davidson and member of the Brainy Yaks.
Deforestation has left many bats with nowhere to go. While some conservationists have attempted to address the issue by building and installing bat boxes, Maddie says these traditional boxes don’t work.
“Normal bat boxes are crammed and uncomfortable, so the bats tend to leave,” she said. “They also cause diseases like white nose syndrome to spread to the whole colony.”
White nose syndrome (WNS) is a fungal disease that emerges in bats that are hibernating close together, with just one infected bat causing the death of 90 percent to 100 percent of the colony. It is estimated that WNS has killed more than 6 million bats in the Northeast United States and Canada.
So, the Yaks decided to do something about it.
“We created a bat house that actually works without spreading disease,” Maddie said.
The houses cost around $20 to make, with students working on their construction during lunch, recess and after school. They then sell the completed houses for $25-35 on their website, http://batyaks.wordpress.com The houses can be posted on a wooden post near a forest or in a field.
“Our bat houses are not only more comfortable for bats, but also have more space, so WNS will not spread,” Maddie said. “The edges are easier for bat claws to grip, they hold more bats and the slats allow the bats to not have to climb over each other to find a spot.”
The students, who have sold 15 houses so far, hope their efforts will help prevent the bats from going extinct. They are also donating part of their profits to a foundation that works to eliminate white nose syndrome.
“The team did an amazing job not just building and programming robots, but coming up with an innovative solution to help decrease the spread of white nose syndrome in the bat population,” said Northrup.
“I could not be more proud of this team and their efforts this season.”
Jennifer Baxter is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help?
Visit the team’s website at http://batyaks.wordpress.com or email email@example.com to order a bat house.