Editors Note: As Houston celebrates its 175th anniversary, we asked city leaders to imagine the city's future. In this essay, Douglas Kleiner, president/CEO of the Education Foundation of Harris County, touts the value of the All-Earth EcoBot Challenge to train the workforce of tomorrow.
Imagine it is 2030 and a new generation of adults is in charge of Houston. What are they like? Did they grow up here? Do they have the love for and understanding of Houston that we do?
Yes, because many of these adults learned how to learn when they were children, right here in Houston, in Harris County, and across the state of Texas. They learned about the workforce of Houston, about the problems and potentials of our region's infrastructure, and about how to work together fearlessly and confidently to solve complex problems.
Yes, these new adults will have the skills they need because when they were in 5th through 8th grades in Harris County, indeed in all of Texas, they participated in the All-Earth EcoBot Challenge where they learned all of this, and more.
These new adults learned how to make education work for them and now, in 2030 Houston, they are taking the city and the region beyond what we can currently dream.
The All-Earth EcoBot Challenge is quite simply a core of critical thinking skills, wrapped in learning, then double-wrapped in fun.
So how did the EcoBot Challenge — an autonomous robotics engineering and marketing competition for students — do all this for them?
The All-Earth EcoBot Challenge is quite simply a core of critical thinking skills, wrapped in learning, then double-wrapped in fun. It starts with LEGO and robots and computers and ends up with young Texans from many walks of life meeting each other in an appealing environment where winning is neither accidental nor random, where "self-esteem" comes from accomplishment.
In early January, they are provided with a guidebook that provides the rules, illustrates how to build the competition tasks and explains not only the goals for each task, but the concepts behind them — such as maintaining a deep-water channel for Houston's Ship Canal to allow for continued import and export, or why and how maglev trains work.
Learning to apply knowledge to solve problems
By providing only this and leaving everything else to the children, the EcoBot Challenge provides an intense experience in applying knowledge to solve problems, which emerge to be grappled with in real-time and for which these students have been given no prior procedure to follow.
Teachers and coaches provide students with the tools they need — the LEGO NXT robotics kits, the computers, the software and the practice pieces — and the children take over from there.
These students provide the necessary drive, enthusiasm, and energy it takes to repeat a task over and over and over again, changing their robot's program ever so slightly, until they succeed. It's not easy and it's not quick to accomplish such success, and seeing young people learn to put off short-term gratification for long-term results is astounding and delightful.
Teachers report that students formerly deemed "education-challenged" and considered to never be able to go to college become superstars almost overnight when given the opportunity to participate in the Challenge.
Parents report a complete change in their child's outlook, grades and even friends and free time. Students go from not knowing what they want to do when they grow up to having definite goals: "engineer," "roboticist," "computer programmer," etc.
Parents report a complete change in their child's outlook, grades, and even friends and free time. Students go from not knowing what they want to do when they grow up to having definite goals: "engineer," "roboticist," "computer programmer."
The EcoBot Challenge in 2012 is in its fourth year. The first year there were 250 students in 54 teams competing for the trophy. The next two years saw four times those numbers and this year, who knows?
Begun by a group of concerned business owners in the Houston area, the Challenge engages kids in working with complex technology, computer programming, problem-solving, critical thinking, and working in teams with a variety of people — all the aspects needed by an increasingly technological and global workforce.
Schools traditionally don't teach all of those concepts, and many kids would otherwise never be exposed to them. Take one kid who seems destined for minimum wage, add EcoBot, and you find yourself with a motivated, ambitious, confident self-learner. That's exactly what we need in 2012 and what we'll continue to need in 2030.
Opportunity for growth
This year is the year we begin to scale outward, to perceive how we become statewide and expand beyond who chooses to come to Houston. With support, we can scale upward what we do within Harris County itself. With support, we can scale to other cities as well as continue in Harris County.
Since the second year, the Challenge has attracted teams from as far away as San Antonio, Dallas and Brownsville, making "All-Earth" reach the "All-State" level. So popular is the EcoBot Challenge that I receive phone calls and emails from all over the country from institutions and individuals who want to bring the Challenge to their city, so they, too, can reap the rewards of a workforce that comes pre-trained in and pre-excited about working with the most advanced technologies and industries in the world.
Scaling can enable thousands more to compete; technology can tie sites together on the same day in multiple cities. Imagine a state-wide competition accelerating the capacity of teachers to be successful in their classrooms, driving collegiate-level awareness and high-school level learning into the lives of young elementary and middle-school students.
Scaling the Challenge is how motivated individuals and business leaders can exercise control over the education of youth in a way that ties to the future of industry and commerce in our region.
To watch students in action at the All-Earth EcoBot Challenge on Feb. 25, March 3 or April 14, email Douglas Kleiner at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 713-696-8290.