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Heritage Robotics team saves bats’ lives

The LEGO Robotics Team from Heritage Elementary School traveled to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge to discuss bats' White Nose Syndrome with Ranger Daphne Moland. CONTRIBUTED
The LEGO Robotics Team from Heritage Elementary School traveled to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge to discuss bats’ White Nose Syndrome with Ranger Daphne Moland. CONTRIBUTED
MADISON – Working on this year’s project challenge with FIRST LEGO League, the LEGO Robotics Team at Heritage Elementary School is helping bats threatened by White Nose Syndrome.
“Each year, FIRST releases a different challenge; the project and robot objectives fall within that theme,” sponsor and gifted specialist Rachel Gibbs said. This year’s challenge, Animal Allies, requires students to solve a problem with human-animal interaction.
“A common misconception is that robotics competition is all about robots,” Gibbs said. Actually, the competition has three areas: project (doesn’t include robotics), robot game and teambuilding.
Team members are sixth-graders Evelyn Coon, Akshat Dubey, Parth Kommidi, Dylan Templet and Jeremiah Yang and fifth-graders Madhu Balaji, Ronan Barnes and Nathan Johnson.
“Our team discovered that bats in our area are facing a serious problem and even possible extinction with White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that grows on bats’ muzzles and wings,” Gibbs said. Ranger Daphne Moland at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and Randall Blackwood at Cathedral Caverns helped them understand this threat.
Wheeler has two bat homes, Sauta Cave and Fern Cave.
Moland compared the fungus to a common cold. The syndrome wakes infected bats frequently during hibernation and depletes their energy. “Because insects are difficult to find during winter, many bats (can’t eat) and die,” Gibbs said.
Bats and humans spread the disease. The fungus doesn’t infect humans.
“Our team also learned that gray bats, very common to our area, haven’t been as heavily affected by the syndrome but extremely affected by human disturbance to their environment. These bats are on the endangered species list. Humans can also help by putting up bat houses,” Gibbs said.
“Our team compiled tons of research, talked with local professionals and wrote the script, filmed, edited and published their video,” Gibbs said. They also distributed flyers at outfitter stores.
Their brief, educational video explains bats’ importance to our ecosystem, such as decreasing insect population, plant fertilization and biomimicry purposes. They also explained White Nose Syndrome.
“The video demonstrates how to properly decontaminate clothing or gear using rubbing alcohol spray or wipes after visiting a contaminated area — the key to slowing spread of the syndrome by humans,” Gibbs said.
To entice people to watch the video, students added a prize drawing. By completing a short survey after the video, the viewer is entered in the contest.
In February, the team will draw four names, who will receive a Patagonia backpack or Kinnucan’ gift card. The Robotics Team thanks these stores for donating prizes and publicizing their work.
Parent coach Elise Coon is working on the project and teambuilding aspects, while Matt Johnson is mentoring robotics. “Parents are one of the driving forces of our school system,” Gibbs said. “I wholeheartedly believe we couldn’t achieve such great success without their support.”
Gibbs and the Heritage students encourage residents to view their video at hesbatvid.com. Complete the survey to enter the prize drawing on Feb. 1.

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