State champion robotics team is building a ‘Bee Byway’ through Newport News

June 28, 2020
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Joshua Nichols and Luke Marston inspected the edges of a wild patch of plants on the periphery of a 7-acre pocket park tucked in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

They have big plans for this place, and the city is on board with it — to add Nicewood Park to the Bee Byway that the two 14-year-olds are plotting through the city to give bumblebees a much-needed boost as their natural habitats for nesting and foraging disappear.

For the past six months, the boys have been working toward a mass planting of native and bee-friendly vegetation at dozens of sites to provide a pollinator corridor from Huntington Park to Newport News Park.

“The idea behind it is based on the idea of connectivity,” Joshua explained. “Connecting existing natural areas through added natural areas.”

Existing natural areas are fragmenting or disappearing altogether from urbanization, which in turn pushes out pollinators that serve vital roles.

“Bumblebees are what’s called a keystone species,” Luke said. “So bumblebees, like many other animals such as oysters, support their local ecosystem.”

Bees pollinate plants that provide food or habitat for other species and that help remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Even the critters themselves are an important food source for other animals.

“So, even though some people might not think insects are cute, without them all the cuter animals would likely die,” Luke said.

Their project has won over city officials and educators who’ve provided information and guidance and helped win the pair a state championship in the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition, which encourages hands-on, STEM-based, problem-solving experiences for students.

This is the third time Joshua and Luke, both home-schooled, have aced their age division at the state level. In April, they’re off to Detroit and the global championships, where they’ve ranked among the best in the world for the past two years.

The two have been competing in FIRST LEGO since 2013, building robots entirely out of Lego materials to perform specific tasks, but also dreaming up projects intended to provide a solution to an existing problem.

“The first year, we were, like, we just don’t want to come in last,” said Amy Nichols, Joshua’s mother and a team coach. “And they ended up winning the second place championship in regional and going to state.”

The boys put plenty of thought and research into their projects each year, picking the brains of experts from local governments and universities to the U.S. Geological Survey.

One year, Nichols said, the team spent all summer and fall researching balloon pollution and its impact on waterways and oceans, consulting with marine experts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point.

“They actually created — it was the coolest thing ever — a seaweed balloon,” Nichols said. “And it actually floated. That was our first introduction to a real project.”

The next year was a “Bees in a Box” project that involved consulting with a professor at the University of Virginia and a wildlife researcher at USGS who studies the decline of bees.

“It just blows your mind, the creativity of these kids,” Nichols said.

This year’s challenge is called “city shapers,” she said, “and challenges the kids to identify a problem having to do with a public space and then develop an innovative solution to it.”

The boys plotted 52 sites in the city between Warwick Boulevard and the James River to create the pollinator corridor, researched and secured the most appropriate plants and solicited volunteers for a mass planting at those sites on March 7. They have 30 volunteers who’ve promised faithfully to be there, and another 300 ready to pitch in.

What they need now, they said, are schools, churches or homeowners willing to volunteer some green space to convert to a pollinator garden and help fill in some gaps in the corridor.

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