Having the opportunity to contribute to global research is usually the domain of university academics. But walking into Bendigo Tech School, it’s immediately clear that Victorian school students are playing a crucial role in helping experts solve real world problems.

Saving the world’s bee population may seem like an lofty goal, but a ground-breaking partnership between Victoria’s Tech Schools and Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is turning the impossible into the possible.

Throughout the world, bee numbers are declining and this is set to have a devastating effect on food security. “Honey bees are vital for food production, as around 75 per cent of the fruit and vegetables we eat are pollinated by bees,” says Jemily Sweet, a project co-ordinator and STEAM learning designer at Bendigo Tech School. “This issue of food security underpins the ‘Bees with Backpacks’ project where up to 5000 bees have been tagged with miniscule sensors that are similar to an e-tag. The sensors monitor bee movement and behaviour. The idea is that through the data gathered, design interventions can be created to help save bees from extinction.”

The hives for the Bees with Backpacks project are located at EcoThought Farm in Harcourt, an innovative ‘test bed’ designed to develop and evaluate smart farm technologies. “The hives are set up with scales and temperature and humidity sensors.  By monitoring this data, technology can help with hive health, for example, by switching on fans if the humidity gets too high,” says Graeme Wiggins, the director of Bendigo Tech School. “When it gets too humid the bees usually fan the entrance of the hive, which takes them away from collecting pollen, but turning on the fan technology means bees are free to do other things and can optimise honey production.”

Graeme says that projects like these inspire students to engage in critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and to work out how to communicate their big ideas. Bendigo Tech School is hosted on La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus and works with 14 local secondary schools and industry bodies to equip students with the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) skills they’ll need for the future.

Now that Bendigo is a designated UNESCO City of Gastronomy, the Tech School’s food and fibre programs is even more timely. “Through the Bees with Backpacks project, students will learn about vital food security issues,” says Graeme. “Students will analyse data and create technical interventions that could help people in the bee keeping space to adapt their hives to ensure the health and wellbeing of bees.”

Another food-related project that students will be involved with is at Mandurang Valley Wines, where a high-tech weather station has been installed to help monitor vine and soil health. “Students will be able analyse data from this site and use their own Internet of Things (IoT) smart farm sensors to develop interventions that may be able help home gardeners with soil moisture detection,” says Jemily. “These are all projects that have been sparked by conversations with local industry partners who come to us with a problem and we try to help create solutions for those challenges.”

Mandurang Valley Wines, where a weather station has been installed

Words by Lindy Alexander