Today’s guest blogger is Mark, coach of FIRST® LEGO® League Team Periodic Pandas from Westford, Vermont, USA. The Periodic Pandas were Global Innovation Award Semi-Finalists and Innovation Ambassadors from the ANIMAL ALLIESSM season.

All FIRST LEGO League teams registered for the current HYDRO DYNAMICSSM season are eligible to participate in this year’s Global Innovation Award, though they must receive a regional nomination to submit. Learn more about the award here.

What do GIS maps, native bee habitats, and FIRST LEGO League have to do with each other?  The Periodic Pandas from Westford, Vermont connected the dots between these topics to create BeeFinder, a habitat mapping tool that could help reverse native bee population decline across the globe.  

Our team was challenged to “think big” for their ANIMAL ALLIES Project.  Realizing that plant pollination was vital to the sustainability of world crop harvests, our team determined that they would focus their attention on bees.  Our students were shocked to learn that the honeybee was just one of 4,000 native pollinator species in North America!  All it took was one student asking, “what about the other 3,999 species?” for us to realize that we had a much bigger problem to solve.

Native bee populations are dwindling, and are nearly impossible to quantify.  Native bees are primarily solitary – they do not live in man-made structures.  Most live underground, only where the proper environmental conditions align to create an ideal habitat.

For our team’s Project research, we talked to a local professor and native pollinator expert who delivered a college-level lecture to our kids.  The questions that followed helped spark their imaginations on how to use technology to find, save, and promote potential native bee habitats.

Through research, our students realized that habitat conditions needed by native bees corresponded to information that was already available through soil surveys, water maps, and satellite imagery.  We wondered – was there any way to re-use these things in ways we hadn’t thought of before?

Next, we visited Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, where they host a database of GIS maps, free and open for all to use. Transforming and overlaying the right map layers would show where habitat needs intersect (like a Venn Diagram), revealing potential ideal native bee habitats.

Our first BeeFinder prototype was made with markers and transparencies, but that was enough to show that the idea had merit. The students took their new knowledge of GIS map capabilities and defined the algorithms needed to make the system work.

Through a unique collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, their GIS staff helped code our specification using Vermont’s map database and compared its results to published research.  The interactive map is hosted on a Vermont.gov website, and can pinpoint ideal potential native bee habitat anywhere in the state! Check out BeeFinder.org to see our invention in action.

We’re excited that we now have a way to dynamically track native bee populations – and we have big plans to grow the idea!  For example, communities that rely on agriculture can consider bee habitat in their development decisions. Homeowners can make minor changes to their land maintenance practices to promote food sources. The idea can even scale to other states and species!

The Periodic Pandas have worked hard to share their ideas with others throughout their journey.  Our team was a Global Innovation Award semi-finalist, where we traveled to Washington, D.C., to showcase the BeeFinder.

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The team visiting the USPTO in Alexandria, Virginia, during the 2017 Global Innovation Award Celebration

We’ve also presented our prototype at a Code for America event, shared our work with local entrepreneurs, were recognized at the Vermont State House, and even got to demo the BeeFinder to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and his staff!

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Periodic Pandas posing with Senator Bernie Sanders

Recently, we’ve been recognized by the Xerces Society and are in talks to finalize a research grant from National Geographic.

Our team is absolutely thrilled to see their idea go so far and have the potential to make real change for native bee populations.  We hope our experience can inform and inspire other teams to “think big” and follow their passions!