DeWitt Middle School - Robotic Scaregull

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Landing students on Egg RockNew York TSA Chapter builds “Jack,” an autonomous robot, to help seabird restoration efforts in Maine.

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Robot under constructionStudents at DeWitt Middle School (Ithaca, NY) got the rare opportunity to show off their technology skills in a real life setting this summer. In late June, just prior to the 2008 National TSA Conference in Orlando, technology teacher David Buchner took 4 of his 8th grade students to Maine to deliver their nearly completed year-long bio-engineering project: a Robotic Scaregull. Conceived as a joint venture between Buchner's eighth-grade technology students and ornithologists from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, "Jack", as the robot is affectionately called, was meant to scare away predatory gulls from Eastern Egg Rock. The 7-acre island is home to many seabirds, some of whom have been disappearing at an alarming rate due in part to predatory gulls who eat baby terns.

Sending robot to Edd RockBuchner was asked by ornithologist, Dr. Stephen Kress if his students might like to design and build a scaregull that could be pilot-tested at Egg Rock, which is located eight miles off the Maine coast. Kress started the Puffin Project back in 1973 as a seabird restoration effort aimed at bring back birds like the Atlantic Puffin and Arctic Tern to their historic nesting islands. A hundred years ago, humans harvested seabird eggs and hunted many of these birds to the point of local extinction. The success of restoring many of these lost seabirds to their traditional nesting sites has been well documented. Now, the issue that brought Buchner and Kress together– technology education teacher and conservation biologist- became a classic "problem solving" exercise.

Steve Kress announces safe arrival of kids at Egg RockTechnology students truly had their design work cut out for them with this project. The final robot had to, autonomously, be able to suddenly rocket up to an erect stance and then retreat into a box per a computer controlled program, several dozens times daily then repeat this process for the entire summer breeding season. A solar collector had to effectively power a marine battery and numerous mechanical devices had to all work seamlessly for the box to open and the scaregull to perform its Jack-in-the-box job. Transporting this creation, eight miles out into the ocean and then landing it on an island ringed by a fringe of ice-slippery seaweed, posed additional challenges. Not to speak of the unanticipated problems that might face Kress's island interns whose specialty is in bird biology, not computer programming and mechanical engineering.

Robot on Egg RockDespite these obstacles, eighth-grader Yuyoung Lee, who put countless hours into this project proudly said "A lot of engineering was put into this – mechanical engineering, electrical engineering." Rob McCurdy, an engineer from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology was one example of the many partnerships that were generated by this project. Crucial to morphing a used fashion industry mannequin into an exciting biotechnology project was the adult-student mentorship. Buchner's students often took the role of teacher, especially with the programming of the robot's computer control. Isaac Wagner, 13, an eighth-grader who masterminded this aspect of the robot, sometimes was overheard explaining his computing logic to McCurdy. "This is so much fun", Wagner admitted, even as he and McCurdy were putting the finishing touches on the programming at 4 o'clock in the morning just hours before the robot went on a boat out to Egg Rock [see photo].

Landing Jack on seaweed"How many school projects keep kids at school until well into the wee hours of the morning – because the kids downright refuse to leave?" asked Evie Weinstein, DeWitt TSA advisor. "The best part of this project was the real-life element that was part of it from the start. Kids were designing something for a purpose, responding to an environmental problem and they were able to see their work through from inception to installation. How rare is that for students at the middle school level?" noted Weinstein. As a former ornithologist and member of the Puffin Project research team herself, as well as a seasoned TSA veteran, she was excited about this collaboration from the beginning. "Each of the students had to learn about the biological, environmental and practical aspects that would have impact on their end product. You couldn't ask for a better educational experience."

Students and researchers group shotIn retrospect, the students were unanimous that building Jack made for some surprising new connections for them, with teachers, research scientists, working engineers, secretaries, local funding sources, businesses, NY State Education Department officials, and school administrators. The networks even expanded nationally because a few days after the kids returned from Maine some headed off to the National TSA Conference in Orlando.

As for the results of Jack's impact on the gulls of Eastern Egg Rock, the results are still being tallied. Even as a pilot project, there is reason for encouragement. "It seems like there may have been less gull presence in the tern nesting areas," reported Dr. Kress when he was asked in early August. "The terns got used to the robot popping up every so often and there seemed to be less gull disturbance in the area where Jack was located." When all the observations are evaluated, if the robot had a positive impact, David Buchner may have to recruit new eighth-graders to kick-off Phase 2 of "Jack, the Scaregull". And, if impact of this project can be measured by the kids' insistence to be involved in any future re-design of Jack, there will be no shortage of participants for the coming school year.