This Bat Season, Go Beyond the Myths With Your Learners

Educator James Fester wrote this post.

Depending on where you live, this time of year can be a prime opportunity to see bats—those small, nocturnal, winged creatures. In the eastern U.S., bats search for food and mates in the fall before hunkering down to hibernate. This year, October 24-31 is Bat Week, a valuable chance to learn about and celebrate the role bats play in the natural world.

In addition to their association with fall and spooky holidays like Halloween, bats are critical to keeping ecosystems healthy. Like bees, they are pollinators. They also help disperse seeds and keep populations of destructive insects in check, with some studies suggesting they save farmers in the United States as much as $53 billion in pest control costs annually. They do this by eating insects like mosquitoes, sometimes as many as 1,000 in a single hour. As a resident of Minnesota, I can attest that this level of mosquito control should qualify them for a ticker tape parade!

Despite their oversized contributions to the environment, bats are under threat in much of the U.S. Habitat destruction and drought caused by climate change have put stress on many populations. To make matters worse, a fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome has ravaged bat populations across the country, nearly wiping out certain bat colonies. 

But with these challenges come opportunities for learners to take action and get involved in helping protect bats in their own communities. And there’s no better time to start than now, with all sorts of resources that can be used to create amazing learning experiences around bats!

Here are two broad suggestions, with specific implementation ideas, for inviting bats to roost in your next lesson:

1. Create a meaningful challenge or problem for students to investigate.

Projects and lessons tend to be more effective when rooted in real-world problems and issues. One such problem is the bad rap bats get due to myths and misunderstandings about them. For example, if you’ve ever seen a bat fly by and worried it might be looking to suck someone’s blood, you may have fallen for a common myth, as less than 1 percent of all bat species consume only blood for sustenance. A great inquiry-based project learners of all kinds can undertake is to investigate and debunk a bat myth like this one. A great starting place is this National Geographic video illuminating why bats are less scary than people may think. Learners can then create short-form films or presentations sharing their newfound knowledge.

If you’ve got a slightly older group of learners, you could have them look more closely at the important relationship between bats and farmers through the work of National Geographic Explorer Rodrigo Medellín. Medellín’s work highlighting the role bats play in sustaining the agave crops of Mexican farmers convinced many of them to set aside land to encourage more visits from these flying mammals. Learners can take inspiration from Medellín and look into ways to encourage bats to visit locations near them where their presence would be especially helpful, such as farms producing nuts or fruits. Then, they could provide those venues with information on the benefits of bats and even propose the construction of new habitats.

2. Connect students to high-quality and accessible information.

Whatever line of inquiry you choose, you’re going to want to expose students to additional resources focused on bats. It is especially important that the information you provide to students is factually accurate, created by experts or organizations specializing in bat conservation, and accessible to the students using it. Fortunately, there are good options out there. Here are three:

  • The Bat Week website: It hosts a variety of educational resources for learners of all ages, ranging from coloring and craft activities to plans for building bat habitats, which is a great STEAM connection for makerspace teachers looking to get in on the celebration.
  • The National Park Service’s (NPS) official bat webpage: The NPS manages many places that are home to huge populations of bats, such as Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where colonies of Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge nightly in the summer. The NPS site also has great general information about bats and what people can do to stem the spread of white-nose syndrome, as well as several free, downloadable lesson plans that any educator can become a bat hero by integrating into their curriculum.
  • Project EduBat: Lastly, this initiative supported by several government agencies and nonprofits focuses on providing distance learning opportunities that connect learners to bats. This rich website links to webinars and citizen science projects that students can participate in from wherever they live.

Featured image: Mexican free-tailed bats flee Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve in Mason, Texas (Joel Sartore).

James Fester is a consultant and author passionate about project-based learning (PBL) and experiential learning. His educational experience includes classroom teaching, instructional coaching, technology integration, and, most recently, serving as a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty. In addition to his consulting work, James is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for parks across the country. His writing has been featured by National Geographic, TED-Ed, KQED, and in a recent book on PBL and environmental science published by ISTE. He currently resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Learn more about his work or how to work with him on his website.

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