Academic excellence STEMs from ABS West’s All-Earth Ecobot Challenge

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July 19, 2022 by HCDE Communications

In their final week of summer school, six teams of Academic and Behavior School West (ABS West) special needs students faced off in the school’s second annual All-Earth Ecobot Challenge on July 14.

After participating in the program but missing his chance to compete last summer, ABS West soon-to-be sophomore Jonathan Castillo has anticipated the event all year.

“Last year, I learned how to build robots and stuff, and now I build on top of that,” he said. “I’m the pilot and engineer in my room.”

The STEM-focused All-Earth Ecobot Challenge facilitated by Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Afterschool, Summer, and Enrichment for Kids allows students to build, code, and perform tasks with LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Robot Kits.

Students from fourth grade to age 22 began working together to build their robots when they reported on the first day of the extended school year in June. They spent the next six weeks learning to pilot the robots each day after completing their coursework each day. The six teams showcased the products of their efforts on Challenge Day, the program’s culminating event.

This year, ABS West’s challenge featured a sports theme by popular demand from participating students. The competitors were tasked with knocking down the “defensive line,” navigating a soccer ball up the “field” past the “defenders,” and making a slam dunk with their robots. For each task completed, teams were awarded points. All students received a certificate of participation and the top three teams received medals.

Every participant approached the challenges with creativity. Some even drew on real-world examples.

“When I was practicing, I thought of another strategy,” said Castillo. “Football players, when they tackle, back up on the field and do it again. I’m going to back up and do it again. I’m going to knock down my defensive line.”

Castillo says building robots drives his interest in a career in engineering, a goal inspired by his cousin and role model who works in technology.

“I have fun engineering because of my cousin. That’s why I’m into it,” he said. “I’m trying to see if I can go to college for it.”

ABS West Behavioral Coach Michael “Mechanized Mike” Rowe, who oversaw the school’s Ecobot Challenge this summer, says the nature of the program emphasizes students’ individuality, natural leadership, and peer-to-peer interaction.

“It’s an introduction to robotics. It allows the kids to be imaginative and express themselves. For those that wouldn’t normally be able to focus, it gives them that focus and practices social skills,” he said. “I encourage them to be supportive of their group as a team. Sometimes it’s hand-over-hand with another peer, and they’ll grab it and say, ‘Hey, just do this and this.’ I saw a lot of that encouragement from students.”

The reward of working with robots also reinforced regular instruction, says Rowe.

“I use it as a tool to help them get focused,” he said. “Caleb, who[se team] won first place, was helping all the other classes. His teacher was encouraging him, saying, ‘As long as you’ve done your work, do you want to go and help other students?’”

Rising freshman Caleb Idei jumped at the chance to help his fellow ABS West Knights.

“I would go around the tables asking people if they need help or not,” he said with a smile.

The confidence students gained from guiding classmates and working on something they are passionate about was noticeable.

Annette Surgers, who attended Challenge Day to see her nephew, DeAviance Lawrence, compete, was thrilled to see her nephew interacting with his teammates.

“I’m glad to see him getting involved because, in his regular school, he has such a hard time mingling and getting involved with other students in class,” she said. “I see the little boy with him, and he’s talking to him and everything. That was hard for him to do. I’m glad we brought him here.”

Regardless of students’ age, robotics knowledge, or score, each drew something from the experience.

“At the end of the day, they got something out of it,” said Rowe. “They got some enjoyment. They got to work with others. They got a chance to experience ‘the dreaded summer school’ with something that they actually like doing. I think they all left with the satisfaction of a job well done and appreciation for what they were able to contribute to the school.”

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