The New Albany-Plain Local School District's STEM expedition to South Africa this year allowed students to get up close and personal with a few of the approximately 5,000 black rhinos left in the world.
Earlier this month, the 18 middle and high school students enrolled in the district's STEM program spent eight days in Moholoholo, a nature preserve in South Africa for such wild animals as rhinos, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas.
The students spent much of the school year building a robotic car to photograph and video wild animals, said Sandra Willmore, the school district's STEM -- an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- curriculum adviser.
"Our goal was to build computer cars like the Mars Rover, that were durable enough to survive a rhino," Willmore said.
Willmore said the students worked with engineers from the Commercial Vehicle Group of New Albany, which donated $10,000 to purchase the materials for the cars.
The class tested the cars this spring at the Wilds, a 9,000-acre wild animal preserve in Muskingum County, Willmore said. The students learned a valuable lesson there, she said.
"The Wilds let us use (its) facility for free and we used the cars on different animals to see the response," Willmore said. "It was totally different with the Asian rhino they have. He actually charged the car and demolished it.
"It was like something I'd never seen before, but we knew that was a possibility and it affected our final design. We had to determine what we could do to make the car more durable.
"It was a very valuable experience. We changed the design before we took it to Africa."
In South Africa, students also tested the cars on different animals. They had to make adjustments after one of the cameras got caught on a bush and was knocked out of position while they were trying to video a female rhino and her calf.
"The kids had to problem-solve and figure out what to do next," Willmore said.
On the seventh day of the trip, the students' car encountered a male rhino that curiously approached the car, but did not destroy it.
"It was the male dominant rhino for the herd," Willmore said. "He just showed up. We hadn't seen him the entire time.
"It was interesting to see the curiosity and behavior."
Videos, photographs and student blog entries will be posted on naplsstemx.blogspot.com.
Willmore said the district will have more videos to share with parents but she is more excited about the potential for the robotic cars they designed being used at Moholoholo.
She said reserve manager Colin Patrick said it is difficult to care for the rhinos, especially when they get injured.
Reserve workers need to assess the injury before calling a veterinarian, which costs $7,000 per visit. But workers can't get close enough to the rhinos to see the injury clearly.
"(Patrick is) excited to see the development and is convinced that if we could get (the rhinos) used to the car, they could have one there and use it to drive up to the rhino," Willmore said. "It could save them money and prevent a lot of stress on the rhino."
Willmore said that was the whole point of the STEM expedition.
"We should be developing some kind of educational product that has serious applications in the field," she said.
Willmore said the students are partnering with Cabela's to show video and talk about the endangered rhinos this fall. Some of the class participants also will speak at the June 24 school board meeting.
"The online presence enabled parents, community members and fellow students to follow the daily adventures of the group," said district spokesman Patrick Gallaway. "The videos received many hits and once we have final video, I am sure it will be wildly popular."
Willmore said the 18 students were accompanied by five school staff members, including Rob Hood and Leslie Shea, who helped build the cars, and Andy Moore and Claire Monk, who served as chaperones. Four parents also went on the trip, which including travel days, was June 2-12.
The students who went to South Africa earned 1.5 high school credits: 0.5 for robotic applications, 0.5 for digital photography and 0.5 for wildlife tracking in science," Willmore said.
She said several students also worked on the robotics applications but did not make the trip. Those students earned 0.5 high school credits.