Students spend summer months saving bats from deadly fungus

NEOLA, Iowa (WOWT) -- A young group of Iowa students will take their invention to Washington, D.C. next week after being selected as one of the handful of standouts among 32,000 teams who entered.

Middle school students don’t usually mix with elementary kids – especially in the summer. The recipe works for this group of 8 as they hike the grounds at Arrowhead Park in Neola, Iowa.

The subject that has brought the 8th graders and 4th graders together is bats.

“The one we are researching is called the little brown bat,” said Michael Denning.

“It was cool, but kind of creepy,” said Brant Freeberg.

“There’s nothing cute about them at all,” said Olivia Matson.

“[The bats] get themselves under the loose bark,” said Olivia Matson. “And then they follow the path of the sun as the day goes on to keep warm.”

The park ranger told the youngsters about a problem.

“White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that grows on bat’s noses and on their wings and they can’t fly to get water,” said Brant Freeberg. “And they die.”

In spite of the creepiness, the students understood the importance of a bat.

Karis Corrin: “They save farmers a lot of money – about $3-billion across the world.”

Reporter: “Because they eat insects.”

Karis: “Yes – they eat half their weight in insects every night. So we thought we could offer a home for them that it would be helpful for them.”

“This is the bat house we made,” said Alex Corrin, as the group of 8th and 5th graders raised the prototype up on a picnic table for us to see.

The robotics team drew up blueprints and built a bat house out of pipe usually reserved for plumbing.

“Usually we’d put these where there are no trees like in towns,” said Kyla Corrin. “That way they don’t go into houses.”

100 of the bats can fit inside there.

“When they’re in hibernation, they tend to get dehydrated,” said Olivia Matson. “So we have a little water collection here. So when it rains, and they’re in hibernation, they can just come out of here and get water.”

And that can limit White Nose Syndrome.

The kids have built 25 units, so far.

And the bats are using it.

“It was a lot of weird crawling around and stuff. It was kind of creepy,” said Cael Corrin, describing what some of the cameras placed in the bat house showed.

Last year – the TC (Tri-Center) Blockheads collected discarded food from school lunches and fed it to local pigs.

“We thought it was almost better than this year’s [entry], we were kind of doubting it this year,” said Brecken Freeberg.

While the recycled food idea failed to register with the judges of the global innovations award last year, the bat house this year resonated.

Alex Corrin: “Teams that could have made it -- there were 32,000 teams from all around the world. And we’re one of twenty.”

Reporter: “That has to feel awesome, doesn’t it?”

TC Blockheads: “Yeah!”

Out of thousands of entries, the TC Blockheads are one of 20 teams selected to compete for the grand prize in Washington, D.C. next week. (A team from Jasper County, Iowa, was also selected.)

Even though there are other bat houses on the market, investors will be watching.

“It’s a regular wood one,” said Kyla Corrin, as she holds up a wood bat house sold at outdoor stores. “It costs $40 compared to ours which is $25. It’s wood, so it would rot away. It also doesn’t mimic their natural habitat like ours – which is rounded, and theirs is square.”

The team gets to present for 5-minutes before the judges – and then answer questions.

“We created a funny little skit thing so that it’s entertaining, but still gets the point across,” said Olivia Matson.

The group tells WOWT 6 News, they’ll be leaving the bats at home.

The students tell us that if something isn’t done about the bat killing fungus – there won’t be many left in a decade.

The FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award competition finals take place June 20.