Four fifth grade girls from Gateway Pointe Elementary School in Higley Unified are heading to the nation’s capital next week to compete against 15 other schools in the National Geographic Society’s GeoChallenge.

Led by a drive for science and teamwork, Mykah Hancock, Cecelia Udall, Amelia Ray and Anabelle Reynoso won the regional title to qualify for the national showdown.

The GeoChallenge presented a “real-world problem” to students in fifth through eighth grade and asked them to present a possible solution.

The Gateway Pointe students created an idea for a device that could gather plastics from the Colorado River. The project followed this year’s theme, “Tackling Plastic,” and the need to clear pollution from waterways.

“The hardest part was planning and researching. We did research and planning the first few months,” Amelia said.

Added Mykah: “One of the hardest parts was determining where the plastic would go. We decided to give it to a shoe company that makes shoes from plastic.”

Cecilia said she was surprised to discover the extent of the plastic problem.

“I knew it was a big deal, but didn’t realize it was that big a problem,” she said.

The girls were one of three teams from the Gilbert school that qualified for the regional competition.

Annabelle said she was nervous at the regional competition because of all the older students. But she was also excited to see their ideas.

“There were cool things there that every team did,” she said. “They were all encouraging and just having fun. It seemed more welcoming.”

The three Gateway Pointe teams are part of the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Club, led by teacher JasLynn Adkins. It was her second year with the team.

“Last year, we did small activities that were fun, but were not connected. This year, I wanted to have a plan for the kids, something for them to tackle and be motivated about,” she said, adding:

“After talking with some of the kids who were in the STEM club last year, we decided to tackle the National Geographic GeoChallenge of plastic pollution.”

Adkins said that along the competition’s path she was impressed with her students’ work, and a bit surprised at how well they did against older peers.

“I was very proud when I found out that the girls had taken first place. The girls are now working hard to prepare for the national competition,” she said.

In its 31st year, the National Geographic GeoBee challenges student knowledge of geography, cultures, physical features, history and earth science. Nearly 10,000 students nationwide participate in the ealy rounds of the competition.

The school champion then takes a proctored qualifying test, and the top-100-ranked students in each state qualify to represent their school at the state competition.

Organizers said the students “gain skills in research and storytelling, collaboration, videography, innovative design and mapmaking.”

The National Geographic Society was formed in 1888 with the goal of “pushing the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas to increase understanding of our world and generate solutions for a healthy, more sustainable future for generations to come. Our ultimate vision: a planet in balance.”

Information: nationalgeographic.org.