This may not be one of the best looking activities, but I assure you seed balls are surprisingly fun and part of a rich tradition around the world. I first learned about seed balls from my son’s 5th grade LEGO Robotics team, the Robot Rulers! It is a roundabout story and one worth telling.
First be forewarned: if your kids are interested in LEGO Robotics, know that it is not entirely about LEGOs. LEGO Robotics is about core values required for working together, programming a robot, and problem solving. I like to describe it as “FFA for engineers.”
In 2016, the FIRST LEGO League robotics challenge dubbed “Animal Allies” was designed to encourage kids to explore the complex relationship between humans and animals. My ten-year-old son and five of his friends (all LEGO Robotics “rookies”) took on this challenge. After much debate they came up with the idea to use drones to drop seed balls to create habitat for animals after a forest fire.
One of the tenets of LEGO Robotics is that “the kids do the work!” Adults can coach, mentor and support, but the work really needs to come from the youth. This was certainly the case for the Robot Rulers. Here is the students’ rationale, or problem identification, for exploring forest fires and reforestation excerpted from their presentation:
Humans and animals share the planet, but the problem is animals are losing habitat. That means they have less places to live, eat, and raise babies. The biggest cause of habitat loss are things humans do. Like deforestation and starting forest fires. In fact, 90% of forest fires are started by humans. Not a lot of animals die in the fire, they die because once their home is burned they have nowhere to go. Climate change makes it worse, but humans can help! Humans can keep fires away by managing land, containing fires, and preventing fires, but if a forest fire does happen, humans can help the animals home, the forest, grow back more quickly.
The Robot Rulers looked at many different solutions to help the forest grow back quickly such as planting trees by hand, but they found the trees take a lot of time to grow and in the meantime non-native species tend to start growing first. They also learned that this requires a lot of people, and due to landslides and other landscape limitations it can be dangerous and costly.
One students came up with the idea of dropping beavers with parachutes to go in and restore habitat. Everyone laughed, but then they dutifully researched that potential solution and discovered wildlife biologists did just that in Idaho. Seriously: beavers with parachutes. I kid you not. The wildlife biologists even made a video out of it. That idea of dropping things from planes was the genesis for a variety of solutions they explored finally pairing new drone technology with ancient seed ball technology.
So what is a seed ball? According to the students’ research, the seed ball – also known as the earth ball – was originally created by the Japanese. It was also used in Egypt to repair farms after the annual spring flooding of the Nile River.
Seed balls are marble sized balls made of heavy clay soil and seeds. It is an ancient technology used to protect seeds and give them a better chance of surviving. Still to this day people use them all around the world. Here is how you make them:
- Mix soil with water. For the soil, people use different mixtures of clay, straw and compost depending on the substrate the seed ball is going into. We are fortunate to live in the Willamette Valley with rich top soil so we just dug soil from around the farm, put it in buckets, and then slowly added water until the soil stuck together.
- Place a tablespoon size clump of soil in your hand. The amount of soil does not need to be exact, but about a tablespoon is enough soil around the seed to get it growing (without being too much soil so that it will not combine with soil on the ground as the plant grows).
- Put in 1-2 native seeds. Too many seeds could grow and crowd out plants. Of course you can always have your kids put as many seeds in as they want and then observe what happens when ten or twenty plants try to grow from that one spot of soil. It is a worthy experiment. In fact the Robot Rulers first made seed balls and rolled them in seeds so the outside was covered. The result was moldy seed balls. Failure is the best teacher! And know that the seeds you use matters. You do not want to go spreading invasive, non-native plants around. Try this in your garden using vegetable or grain seeds. Not sure what seeds to use? Check the Native Plant Finder, with your local extension agency and a Master Gardener in your state. For limited time, you can also get a FREE Pollinator seed packet from Burpee.
- Roll into balls. This is the fun and messy part. The shape really does not matter nor how perfectly round they are. Most often they come out looking like worms or a boa constrictor that just ate a raccoon.
- Leave in a cool place to dry. I usually do a single layer of seed balls in shallow cardboard boxes and put them in the pump house or garage.
- Gently toss out to plant! It is an important part of the learning process to have kids watch what happens over time and reflect on what they observe. Mark where you toss one, take a picture, and visit it periodically. Ask your kids progressive prompting questions such:
Did some seed balls germinate better than others? Why might that be? Does it have to do with how they were made, or where they were planted, or the weather after they started to grow? What happens over the course of one season, or two? What would they do differently next time?
Want to learn how to make seed balls from the Robot Rulers? Watch this video! It is a fun 60 second commercial with the Northwest Honda Dealers that the students did during the LEGO Robotics club.
And if you are still wondering how else the Robot Rulers conceptualized utilizing drone technology, here is one more juicy excerpt from their presentation:
We could also use the drone to find and plant difficult places to reach, like remote areas and steep hillsides. Or heat map and figure out where the worst of the fire was and drop the seeds there. We can also use the drone again to check in on how the plants are growing. If there are invasive species like blackberries then we can use the drone to know where to go weed. Our drone design has a heat sensor to sense the worst parts of the forest fire, and an attachment to drop the seed balls.
The students ran all these ideas by experts and found that sure enough drones are currently being used to map the age of the forests, but the Robot Ruler’s other suggested uses of drones had merit and were under consideration. As you can see they (we) learned so much in LEGO Robotics. What you cannot see is how much each of those youth participants grew individually and as a team. They learned how to listen to each other, celebrate each individual’s strengths, and support a peer when the pressure was on. I strongly encourage you to consider checking out FIRST LEGO League.