2022 All-Earth Ecobot Challenge returns in-person, inspires next generation of female STEM leaders

Harris County robotics students are revving up for the 2022 All-Earth Ecobot Challenge, which will be held in person after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, with the first of two practice days this Saturday.

“The impact that the Ecobot Challenge has on students in our afterschool programs is truly life-changing and we are so thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity in person once again,” said CASE for Kids Director Lisa Thompson-Caruthers. “Hands-on opportunities, like robotics, help students problem-solve, build critical thinking skills, and expose them to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.”

Galena Park Elementary student Gabriella Salazar and her robotics team take inventory of a LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Core robotics kit, Jan. 19, 2022.

Three all-girl robotics teams from Galena Park Elementary School (Galena Park ISD) will be competing in this year’s event alongside hundreds of students from the region.

Fifth-grade student Gabriella Salazar is already counting down the days until Challenge Day on April 23.

“I’m really excited because it was all online last year,” Salazar said. “Now I can work with my friends and build stuff together, and it’s super fun! We started [working] on some ideas in October.”

The All-Earth Ecobot Challenge is a hands-on, project-based competition that invites students to navigate challenges based on real-world environmental issues using LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Core robotics kits.

Students prepare for the event through afterschool or out-of-school time programs supported by the Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids, or CASE for Kids, a division of Harris County Department of Education. CASE for Kids anticipates 300-400 students from afterschool programs across the county will compete in this year’s competition.

The theme of this year’s challenge—“Ecobot Kingdom: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink”—will challenge student teams from grades four to eight to design, build, and program autonomous robots. The teams will then use their robots to complete a series of missions that educate the next generation on the various methods and purposes of recycling, such as composting, alternative energy sources, and building homes from upcycled materials.    

On Saturday, students will be guided through point-scoring strategies, mission-specific rules, game table set-up, and game piece placement.

Science teacher and robotics coach Kaneice Washington, who runs Galena Park Elementary’s afterschool STEM clubs, also looks forward to the event and the opportunity it will afford her students.

Galena Park Elementary student Gabriella Salazar poses for a photo, Jan. 19, 2022.

“When Gabriella started [in robotics], she was in the third grade, and that’s when COVID hit,” said Washington. “Last year, they had to do it online and it didn’t involve the robot at all, so when I was told we could have the kids [in-person], I was ecstatic because I know what this can do for the kids.”

The challenge, a 13-year tradition at HCDE, is provided through CASE for Kids and the Education Foundation of Harris County, the nonprofit foundation which supports HCDE programs and services.

Galena Park Elementary School, a Title I school near Houston’s ship channel, has participated in the challenge for nearly 10 years.

“We’ve been doing robotics since 2013, and it started with the All-Earth Ecobot Challenge,” Washington said. “I think Ecobot, robotics, STEM, are very, very important—to this community in particular—because the demographics in this area [don’t] have a high population of people in STEM careers. But also, in the area that we are in, not many people leave. After high school, we don’t see many people venturing off to do something different.”

Washington hopes that instilling a passion for robotics in her students will motivate them to pursue careers in STEM fields where women and minorities are underrepresented.

“We have a high population of Hispanic and female students. I want them to look at science and math in a different way,” said Washington. “They learn so much. Some of them learn how to program, some of them learn they can be a leader, some of them gain interest in so many other areas that they never thought they could have before. This is why I do robotics.”

For Salazar, the message is clear.

“Robots are fun, no matter who you are!”

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