Students go batty with their capstone project

three students with sign on Wilkins Plaza
Mason seniors Bryan Childers, Emma Kendrick and Amanda Tisdale organized the bat box-building workshop as the capstone project for their Sustainability in Action class. Photo by Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications

Bats. We think about them around Halloween, and your mind invariably conjures creepy images of a blood-thirsty companion for witches and vampires.

But Amanda Tisdale, a George Mason University senior majoring in environmental and sustainable studies, sees something different.

“They’re mainly neglected when aerial organisms are spoken about,” she said before ticking off the positive characteristics of the winged, bug-eating, pollinating machines. “They’re actually a big part of the community.”

That’s why Tisdale and her teammates—seniors Emma Kendrick (environmental and sustainability studies) and Bryan Childers (environmental science)—decided to build bat boxes for a capstone project in their EVPP 480 Sustainability in Action class.

students building a bat box
Students were able to paint and decorate the bat box they created. Photo by Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications

They went a step further, too, staging a bat box building event on October 28 next to Wilkins Plaza on the Fairfax Campus, where anyone could grab a hammer and start building to a soundtrack that included Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Childers, general manager of WGMU Radio, and his deejays publicized the event on the air. Email blasts were sent out and signs were hung around campus. Childers, who called bats “interesting” and “lesser-appreciated creatures,” said about 25 people showed up to build bat boxes they took home.

A Mason Impact grant paid for the supplies that included wood and mesh that the bats will grab when they roost, keeping them safe and warm.

“The goal is to make global problems local,” said Jennifer Sklarew, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy who teaches the class. “The students study all these big global problems, but they don’t necessarily have a way to apply local solutions where they can be hands on and engage and develop solutions. This class gives them an opportunity to bring it down to a local level where they can actually engage.”

“It’s forcing us to go out there and take action,” Kendrick said of the project. “Planning the project has been helpful, and the research we’ve put into this learning about bats, about how to approach conservation that’s best for the local area. Those are awesome skills I’ve gained from doing this that I’ll take away with me.”

three woman work on a wooden structure
Mason professor Jennifer Sklarew (right), who teaches the Sustainability in Action course, participated in the workshop. Photo by Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications

It's the kind of problem solving and community engagement that thrives at Mason, which challenges us to solve problems and meet opportunities with inquisitiveness, new ideas and energy.

More than 200 bat species in 60 countries are considered threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And Bat World reports that the fungal disease white nose syndrome has wiped out 90% of little brown bats in the northeast.

The consequences could be dire. Bats eat copious amounts of bugs, pollinate a wide array of plants, and their guano is a suitable fertilizer for plants and lawns.

“So I’m advising people,” Tisdale said, “that if they have a home garden, put the box above the garden and you’ll have free fertilizer.”

The team also is conducting research on the possibility of installing bat boxes on the Fairfax Campus.

“It will mean a lot to me,” Tisdale said. “It’s like leaving a lasting mark on this school and this campus. I want to impact Mason sustainably in a good way that will last for many years to come.”