By Jim McGaw

Robotics team brainstorms user-friendly way to track coyotes

Four Portsmouth Middle School students on team that's building website for reporting sightings

EastBayRI.com ·

PORTSMOUTH — Suppose you’re walking through your neighborhood when you see a pack of coyotes rummaging through some trash that had been left on a porch.

Or, maybe they were eating food from an outdoor dog dish.

The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study (NBCS), which studies the movement of coyote packs to find out where they’re spending their time on Aquidneck Island and elsewhere, would love to know about your sighting. But how do you report it?

You can go on the NBCS website, which has a link to a page that takes reports, but you must type in a lot of information: Your name, sighting date, location, etc.

Some local middle school students, however, have come up with an idea they say will streamline the process and increase the number of outside coyotes sightings, which will in turn help NBCS gather more information to develop strategies in managing the coyote population. They’re developing a website that uses geolocation information in order to make the process of reporting coyote sightings more user-friendly.

AIR Strike Savage Snowflake, a seven-member island robotics team that includes four students from Portsmouth Middle School, competed Saturday in the FIRST LEGO League State Championship at Roger Williams University. Building and programming a robot, however, was only one part of the competition, which this year featured an “Animal Allies” theme.

“The focus was trying to look at ways of improving human/animal interaction,” said Darlene Sullivan, the Savage Snowflake team’s coach. “My kids considered a lot of topics but they wanted to do something locally.” 

The team first visited Escobar’s Highland Farm on Middle Road, where they spoke with Louis Escobar on the possibility of developing a way for the calves to get their water more efficiently, said Nick Perrotti, 14, an eighth-grader. 

His 11-year-old brother, Gio, said the team also visited Roger Williams University’s Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory and explored the idea of designing a self-feeding fish tank.

Coyotes and food

Then Sonia Staroscik, 9, thought of how local coyotes scavenge for food near homes, which increases their presence around neighborhoods. She thought of using an invisible fence type of contraption to keep coyotes away.

“I was thinking about a lid that senses when a dog was near, so the coyote wouldn’t eat the dog’s food,” said Sonia, a fourth-grader.

Then the team had a Skype session with NBCS President Numi Mitchell, who suggested developing an app for people to reporting sightings. (Members also consulted with Portsmouth Animal Control Officer Elizabeth Futoma for their project.)

“We decided if it was an app, then not as many people would download it. We decided to just make it a website,” said Sonia.

Her older sister Cynthia, 12, said the team wanted to spread more awareness about the dangers of feeding coyotes, which is now illegal in Portsmouth and many other communities.

“Coyotes are getting more and more comfortable with humans, that’s a problem,” Cynthia said. “Some people don’t even realize they’re feeding them. And if they’re intentionally feeding them, they can get a fine.” 

There’s already a mechanism in place for people to reporting coyote sightings on the NBCS website, but its cumbersome design probably doesn’t encourage many people to participate, team members said.

“The map on NBCS had to be manually entered, and the last reports were in 2015. There were only, like, 10 dots on the map,” added Cynthia. “It was too much of a hassle and it never really got done.”

Gio agreed. 

“Before you had to enter it all in and then submit it and then a volunteer would go over it and make sure it’s all correct information before putting it on the map. It was very complicated,” he said, adding that a volunteer wasn’t always available to collect data.

The robotics team’s idea makes things simpler, members said.

“Using your geolocation on your phone or computer, it will automatically put in the location and the date and other things like that,” said Gio. “If you don’t want to use your geolocation on your phone — if you don’t want to use your Wi-Fi data — then you can click a button to just drop a pin on the map, type in any other information and then click ‘submit.’”

Added Ms. Sullivan, “It’s going to be a real-time interactive map. It auto-populates the data.”

She said this “smart website” is still a work in progress as the team has been focusing lately on Saturday’s robotics competition and will be traveling to future tournaments as well. 

“We’re hoping to get together more often” to continue work on the website, added Cynthia.

Critical information

Ms. Mitchell said she was impressed not only by the students’ creativity but the initiative they took in getting the project off the ground. When complete, the extra reporting data NBCS receives will be invaluable for its research, she said.

“The critical thing they’re addressing is the need for an easy way for a people to report when they see manmade food resources for coyotes,” she said. “The most important thing about managing coyotes is food. It’s important to reduce the food supply to keep their numbers low.” 

More food left outside also changes coyotes’ behavior — and not for the better. “When they associate people with goodies, then they start behaving in a habituated manner with people,” said Ms. Mitchell, noting that coyotes will start being seen more in the daytime and coming up close to humans without fear.

She’s encouraged by the team’s work so far. “This is great what the kids are doing. They’re drawing attention to the right things and hopefully we’ll be able to synchronize so I can obtain the data,” she said.

“Kids are a wonderful mouthpiece because parents are dying to hear what’s going on with them. It’s a great dinner table conversation: ‘Let’s not feed the coyotes.’”

The other members of AIR Strike Savage Snowflake are Sabrina Sirois, Waylon Vasquez and William Borges.

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