Bob Kuhn, Biotechnology Teacher at Fulton County School’s Innovation Academy, helps students study bee colonies.

Jul 09 2024

Students Collect Data from Apiaries for Project-Based Learning

With bee colonies on the decline, K–12 students turn to technology to understand why.

Nationwide, pollinators are in trouble. After years of steady decline, 2022 to 2023 marked a 37 percent loss of managed bee colonies in the United States, according to the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership.

At Fulton County Schools’ Innovation Academy in Georgia, high school biotechnology teacher Bob Kuhn helps students in grades 10 through 12 to understand the bee situation. Students are charged with tagging and tracking bees as members of an after-school biotechnology research group called the DNA Club.

They work with “an apiary here on campus that has three hives, and at a city farm about three miles away that also has an apiary, the city of Alpharetta’s Old Rucker Farm,” Kuhn says.

As a project-based, career pathway high school, FCS students use hands-on science, technology, engineering and math projects to master certain subjects. It’s one of several bee-related science projects nationwide that rely on technology to help students build STEM skills as they conduct fieldwork.

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Students Embrace a Range of Technologies for Their STEM Projects

For the FCS project, Kuhn takes advantage of readily available radio-frequency identification technology. This is the same technology Amazon uses to keep track of products in its warehouses.

“We are using a miniature RFID tag that you can physically glue to the back of the bee. It’s so small you have to use tweezers to place it,” he says. “We collect bees from the hive, then the students attach the tags with super glue on the back of their bodies and put them back into the hive.”

With the trackers in place, “we can measure how much time they’re spending outside of the hive on trips and how much time they’re spending inside the hive, when they’re not making trips,” he says. “There’s a lot of data that can be collected.”

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All of that data is uploaded into a Microsoft Excel file, and students are learning to code with Python to make that data available for analysis. That information will paint a picture of bee behaviors — how far they have to go for food, for example — which helps students understand the impact of homebuilding, artificial landscapes and other effects of suburban development.

In Pennsylvania’s California Area School District, Superintendent Laura Jacob has fostered a similar effort. The district has four beehives on campus, managed by an after-school club.

“I grew up on a farm, and I know the critical need for bees in our food ecosystem, so I wanted to teach kids the benefits of bees,” Jacob says. “We go up to the beehives, we take care of the bees, and we also harvest the honey. We make lip balm and candles out of the wax.”

Caring for the bees also supports STEM learning for K–12 students. “I’m a strong proponent of technology in education. I wanted kids to see how they can be involved in agriculture and technology at the same time,” Jacob says.

To that end, the school is using Raspberry Pi devices, with a connected Raspberry Pi camera running a Linux system through which the kids learn Python. “We put the camera right at the entrance of the beehive and collect visual data,” she says.

“We programmed it to take a picture every minute or two minutes and send those to an Amazon Web Services cloud-based system. The kids also use existing Python code to teach an artificial intelligence algorithm. It is free AI code that we adapted to our photos,” she says. Students also use their Chromebooks to interact with the data, all of which helps them understand the health of the colony.

DISCOVER: Mobile labs bring STEM to more students.

STEM Projects Help Students Solve Real-World Problems

Hands-on field projects can be an important part of a STEM curriculum.

With field projects, young people “are using technology in ways that align with the world of work, creating authentic, meaningful learning opportunities,” says Tara Nattrass, managing director of innovation strategy at ISTE+ASCD.

In the California Area School District project, students are “learning Big Data collection out in the field, computer technology skills and programming, where we take somebody’s code and adapt it to our specific needs,” Jacob says.

“There’s also the science of bees, understanding bees and understanding the challenges that our bees are experiencing because of climate change, herbicides and pesticides,” she says.


The percentage of surveyed students who said their STEM knowledge increased because of their after-school experience

Source: Afterschool Alliance, “STEM Learning in Afterschool on the Rise, But Barriers and Inequities Exist,” August 2021

FCS’s Kuhn points to several key lessons. “Students are doing authentic open-ended research, where they’re collecting data and then asking questions about that data to see what kind of trends and patterns they can spot, and how they can gain more information about the bees’ behavior,” he says. Overall, “we’re applying things to the real world, trying to figure out solutions to real problems.”

LEARN MORE: More schools should use technology for mastery-based learning.

Beekeeping Connects Students to Larger STEM Goals

Beekeeping projects can work in support of a school’s overall STEM goals and strategies.

For Jacob, whose school is within an agricultural community, bees are just one way to connect STEM to agrarian concerns. “We have a lot of animals on campus for teaching and learning. We have goats, chickens and fish, we have dogs for dog therapy, and we apply many of the STEM components in working with the animals,” Jacob says.

For other schools looking to take STEM tech into the field in support of mastery-based and project-based learning, a few best practices apply.

Tara Nattrass
Students should have opportunities to use technology as designers and creators, mirroring the ways in which technology is seamlessly integrated across industries.”

Tara Nattrass Managing Director of Innovation Strategy, ISTE+ASCD

For bees, in particular, “there’s a little bit of expertise needed,” Kuhn says. “The tagging is kind of complicated. You have to develop protocols for how you handle the bees and make sure you’re not hurting them. It is a technically advanced project.”

It’s equally important, ISTE+ASCD’s Nattrass suggests, to give students the tools and encourage them to use the technology in ways that align with real-world experience.

“Students should have opportunities to use technology as designers and creators, mirroring the ways in which technology is seamlessly integrated across industries,” she says.

Photography by Ben Rollins

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