FIRST LEGO League Team Helps Tampa Zoo’s Sloth Bear

FIRST Lancer LEGObots team and zoo staff with Sloth Bear SodaThis season, FIRST LEGO League teams around the world have been designing solutions to improve interactions between animals and humans as part of the program’s ANIMAL ALLIES℠ Challenge. In Tampa, Florida, one team has already put their solution in action at their local zoo.

Team 16040 “FIRST Lancer LEGObots,” a second-year team based out of Cambridge Christian School, chose to focus their project on the sloth bear after meeting with local zookeepers at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The team learned that sloth bears, like all animals in captivity, require enrichment activities to keep them healthy. So the team decided to create a new enrichment, which they called “Sloth Bear Soda.” The zookeepers approved the enrichment and invited the team to help install it in the bear habitat for Ken, the zoo’s sloth bear, to use.

The sloth bear, native to India, has no front teeth and eats a diet of ants and termites by sucking them out of logs and termite mounds. The team’s enrichment, Sloth Bear Soda, is designed to engage the bear in three of five necessary enrichment types: cognitive, sensory, and food. Built from various pipes and two buckets – supplies were donated to the team by local businesses Chick-Fil-A, Fraco Plastics, and Ferguson Plumbing Supply – the Sloth Bear Soda enrichment looks like a giant fountain soda cup and is dug into the ground. Inside, two buckets are stacked on top of each other. The bottom bucket has meal worms, while the top bucket has four holes drilled through it. A pipe “straw” is placed in the top bucket, and the bear has to move the straw around to get it to fall through to the bottom bucket and reach the mealworms, and then suck the food up through the straw.

FIRST Lancer LEGObots dig a hole to install the enrichment.Creating the enrichment required a true team effort from the LEGObots – students Jasmine, Emma, Will, Corey, Joseph, Andrew, and Ethan, led by Coaches Howard Petree and Terri Youngblood. The team visited the zoo several times and brainstormed many ideas. “It was a lot of teamwork, a lot of going back and forth with the zookeepers. We learned newer things every time we went back to the zoo,” sixth-grader Jasmine said.

On February 1, the team gathered at the zoo to install the enrichment. The students dug a large hole in the ground of the habitat for the enrichment device. Once installed, the team, their families, and some local TV news crews watched as Ken was released into the habitat. Ken spent more than a half hour with the enrichment, eventually pulling the buckets out of the ground to get to the mealworms.

Ken the sloth bear uses the enrichmentTo the zookeepers, Sloth Bear Soda was a success: Ken typically only spends about five minutes with an enrichment. “It was really awesome,” Jasmine said. “We got to see him use it in a completely different way than what we were expecting. He made it more complicated for himself than it needed to be.”

The zookeepers told the team they plan to use Sloth Bear Soda often, with some modifications so Ken can’t take it apart. “The students learned that they can make a difference and be successful in doing something that impacts the world positively. They were proud of what they were able to accomplish,” Coach Petree said.

After seeing how far the team was able to take their project, the zoo’s education department has been inspired to adjust their summer education camps to focus more on enrichments and how kids can help animals by creating new ones.

The LEGObots are true ANIMAL ALLIES. “This was a very fun season,” Jasmine said.

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