John Winthrop Middle School’s 7th- and 8th-grade Lego Robotics teams have taken education and turned it into applied activism with their latest project, a pollinator garden for Deep River Farms. The garden was inspired by the students’ research on pollinators, how they help humans, and the threats they are facing.
The theme of this year’s competition was animal allies, and by coincidence both teams chose animals that are pollinators. While the 8th-grade team learned about how bees were threatened by a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, the 7th graders learned about the threats facing bats, such as white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease named for the white fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, that infects hibernating bats’ muzzles, ears, and wings.
For the Lego competition itself, each team had to construct a robot that would be capable of performing different tasks that would be communicated to the machine via a program that the students would work together to write. While the competition allowed them to work directly on their teamwork, research, communication, and coding skills, it also woke in them a desire to do something about the problems they had learned about.
During their research, they had spoken to Deep River Farms Manager Amy Kousch, who also provided the teams with an apiary—a structure in which colonies of bees are kept—and spoke to them about creating a pollinator garden on the farm.
“We thought that we would just go to the farm and help plant flowers,” said Barbara Nidzgorski, who runs coaches the Lego teams, as well as many other teams across all five schools as Region 4’s Young Scholars Program. “It turned out to be a far more involved project.”
“The garden is going to have a butterfly shape, because butterflies are also pollinators,” said 8th grader Aurora Courci. “We’re going to use a different kind of flower in each quadrant, so that there is a good variety for the pollinators, and have nine plants total: three early bloomers, three mid [season] bloomers, and three late bloomers.”
The students went on to explain that all of the plants used would be native because, although they wanted to give pollinators a good variety of food sources and have a colorful garden, they also didn’t want to use any invasive species, which can also hurt the habitats of pollinators. Each month a different lobe of the wings will be in bloom; the wings will also be planted symmetrically.
“There is also going to be a kid’s area, where they can learn about pollinators,” said 8th grader Tommy Burch. “It’s going to attract a lot of different ones.”
“We also thought about the needs of different plants,” said 7th grader Benjamin Proctor. “We arranged them so that plants that need more sunlight can give shade to plants that need the shade instead.”
Once the garden is complete, they hope to take photos of the garden by drone, so that they can make a timelapse video of the garden through the year. That way people will be able to see how the colors and blooms move throughout the garden. They also planned on having the garden be wheelchair accessible, and have a birdbath. The students will begin working on planting the garden in the spring.
“One of the main ideas of the garden is to get people involved and have them know what these species are going through,” said 8th grader Natalie Weglarz.
“The entire farm is working on an outreach program, and this is going to be part of it,” said 8th grader Katie Morrissey. “There is a process that people use to get engaged, which is what we went through when we were planning this: We wondered about it, then looked for knowledge, then started to understand the problem, then felt a sense of responsibility, then started caring about it, and then took action with the garden.”
“We also want to put a bat house on the farm,” said 7th grader Ava Cunningham. “At first they were worried that the white fungus and WNS could spread to other animals, but they found out that it would be fine, and a bat house could go on a different part of the property.”
In addition to finding ways to support their researched pollinators with habitats and food sources, the students reached out to experts including Dr. Kimberly A. Stoner, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station who is studying the effect of pesticides and insecticides on pollinators, and State Apiary Inspector Mark Creighton, to learn about further ways to protect bees, bats, and other pollinators that help ensure that humans have varied produce to eat.
“We’re also working on a two part bill,” said 8th grader Dylan Colloton. “We want to help pollinators by giving them space, like places with wildflowers, and also ban neoniconoids.”
“The neonicotinoids are a hard problem,” said Burch. “They get rid of bugs that eat crops, but they also hurt the pollinators that we need to have enough plants and keep having all the food that we like to eat.
“Einstein had a theory that was proven wrong, that one-third of food is dependent on bees. But even if that isn’t true, the bees and bats are still endangered and they still need to be helped,” continued Burch.