April 29, 2022 by HCDE-Texas
For the first time in three years, nearly 300 students in grades 4-8 convened in person for the 13th annual All-Earth Ecobot Challenge at North Shore Senior High School in Galena Park ISD (GPISD). The annual competition is hosted by Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids, or CASE for Kids.
“This year, our big push and focus has been on girls teams because research shows us that girls aren’t entering science early enough,” said CASE for Kids Director Lisa Caruthers, Ph.D. “It’s very important to us to encourage our teachers to recruit girls to be on Ecobot teams.”
The hands-on, project-based competition motivates students to solve challenges based on real-world environmental issues using LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Core robotics kits. Students began designing, building, and coding their autonomous robots last fall.
To view the full gallery of photos click here.
Galena Park Elementary School fifth-grader Gabriella Salazar, who we first met in January when she was preparing for this year’s challenge, competed on an all-girls team led by her science teacher, Kaneice Washington.
“I don’t think it would have been the same,” said Salazar, referring to co-ed teams. “Maybe I wouldn’t talk or interact with them as much as I talk to my team. I get partnered up with boys in class, and it’s only them working. I don’t know if I would even be a part of it. But, I would have tried my hardest to because I love robots.”
This was the first year that Washington, who also runs Galena Park Elementary’s afterschool science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) clubs, decided to separate the district’s Ecobot teams by gender.
“We actually had three girls teams here from Galena Park,” she said.
Jackie Moreno, the director for Elementary Math and Science at GPISD, a longstanding CASE for Kids partner with a robust robotics program, notes the gender dynamics when young students approach STEM activities.
“Ms. Washington was the first one who came to me with the idea to separate the boys and girls,” said Moreno. “She felt like when she had the boys and girls together, even in robotics, the boys would tend to take over, and the girls would let them.”
“I noticed it my very first year,” said Washington. “I had two teams with one girl on each team, and I noticed that they were holding back. The next year, I encouraged the girls to speak up more. I encouraged them not to limit their voice and not mute themselves.”
Reflecting on this year’s Ecobot cycle, Washington remarks on how the all-girls team members have grown.
“I see them developing more as leaders. They were anxious at first, but now, they’re just like, ‘Give it to me!’” she said. “They’re confident and they know their stuff. They have developed a lot of skills that I don’t think they knew they had, like coding. I didn’t see them like this before. A lot of them are becoming more outspoken, too. And these girls, they even go to the boy teams and try to help them out.”
Participating in the Ecobot Challenge could signify a turning point for Salazar, whose interests were previously more inclined toward fine arts.
“I actually am considering being an engineer when I grow up,” she said. “My favorite part is probably coding and problem-solving. Like today, when we were competing, the arm was not working, so I had to go in there and adjust it to see what was wrong.”
Salazar plans on continuing with robotics when she goes to middle school next year.
For Moreno, this is evidence that CASE for Kids and GPISD’s efforts to attract girls into STEM activities are working.
“Girls have the power and the ability to do just as much as any other gender—just as much as boys,” she said. “If we can start girls off early enough, get them interested in STEM, and keep them going, I think it will really make a difference in careers and the engineering industry in Texas. This is where they live, and this is where we need to capture them.”
Winners of the 2022 All-Earth Ecobot Challenge
- Cimarron Elementary School, “Masters,” Galena Park ISD
- Beatrice Mayes Institute, “Mr. Bricky’s Steam Team,” charter school
- Sam Houston Elementary, “Mexican B.M.O.,” Galena Park ISD
- Beatrice Mayes Institute, “Team Blackout,” charter school (tie)
- Cimarron Elementary School, “Analyzers,” Galena Park ISD (tie)
- Change Happens, “C.H.Y.E Youth Ecoboters,” nonprofit
- STEM Urban Perspective, “Stem Up,” nonprofit
- Beatrice Mayes Institute, “Team Rumple-stilt-skin,” charter school
- Academy of Accelerated Learning, “Team Nebula,” charter school
- Cleveland Middle School, “CMS Pink Parrots,” Cleveland ISD