Robotics helps to build future generation of Valley engineers

dfwnewsa | February 5, 2024 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News

Robotics helps to build future generation of Valley engineers
Daniel Villanueva, La Joya Juarez Lincoln High School robotics team’s coach, wipes away tears of joy while celebrating with his students Saturday at the Mission Event Center. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

MISSION — For engineering students in South Texas, the FIRST in Texas championship is not just about robotics, and it shows. During Saturday’s competition, students exhibited camaraderie, passion and ambition in this tight-knit community.

First in Texas is an organization dedicated to empowering students across the state for success in STEM fields. The nonprofit supports robotics teams, facilitating professional STEM activities, providing educator training and organizing inclusive events with an emphasis on accessibility for low-income and underrepresented students.

There are three separate competitions: First Lego League for younger students, the First Tech Challenge (FTC) and First Robotics Competition from grades 7-12th, with seven different regions in Texas.

Sammy Rivera, First in Texas South Area program delivery coordinator, is in his second year at the helm covering Brownsville to Laredo. He said Saturday’s competition had about 40 teams in attendance.

La Joya Juarez Lincoln High School robotics team students (from left to right) Cristopher Ramos, Cassandra Maldonado, Jesus Hernandez, Luis Fernandez compete in the final match of the First In Texas First Tech Challenge South Area Championship on Saturday at the Mission Event Center. The team won the match 3 and secured a spot in the state level of the competition. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

A team coach for 10 years, Rivera said the role provides him an opportunity to make a bigger impact for the robotics community in the Valley.

“This is a big community, a big family … now that I’m in this position, I want to help people get better,” he said. “I want their teams to grow, I want their programs to grow. I want these kids to experience opportunities.”

With a big event like this, Rivera said he is grateful to have an amazing volunteer base of former students who want to give back and help.

“Our program prides itself with saying that ‘We’re more than robots,’” he said. “We use the robots to build the students up, not the other way around.”

Wearing pink cowboy hats, the all-girls team Pink Mambas from James Nikki Rowe High School distributed pink rings and buttons at the event. They said they pride themselves in being female in male-dominated STEM fields.

Elizabeth Ortiz, from left, Nayelie Cavazos, and Sarah Ortiz are a part of The Pink Mambas, an all-female team from James Nikki Rowe High School who are showcasing their robot. The team prides itself on being females in the male dominated STEM field of engineering and works on inspiring younger female students to pursue a career in STEM. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

Elizabeth Ruiz, a senior and main builder for the team, said she is proud to be able to teach her passion to the younger girls on the team and on campuses. A basketball player and Kobe Bryant fan, Ruiz said the team’s name was inspired by his mamba mentality slogan.

When she joined the robotics club in middle school, Ruiz was the only girl in the club. She said it can feel intimidating, and now wants to influence other young girls to pursue a career in STEM.

“I want to encourage them and show them that girls can do what we aren’t supposed to do,” she said. “We go to elementaries, middle schools and we show what us girls can do and it’s really important to be a girl to encourage other girls to not be afraid of resistance.”

Rivera said an emphasis this year is targeting schools in rural areas.

“Some schools sometimes don’t get that opportunity. but this year because of (Region 1 Gear Up Program), we brought in 15 teams,” he said.

Ten teams will advance to state, depending on various accolades, like the Inspire award — but being outright winner of the competition cements a place.

Students this year were tasked with making a robot that accomplished several things.

A crowd looks upon the final matches of the First In Texas First Tech Challenge South Area Championship on Saturday at the Mission Event Center. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

Teams, required to start from scratch in September, had to build a robot that could be programmed and remote controlled. The robot’s main function was to pick up hexagon-shaped objects and place them on a background. Which items were placed, and in what arrangement, gave the team a certain amount of points.

The robot also had to throw a paper plane, and include an arm that could pull itself up on its own at the end of the match. All these things contribute to the team’s total points.

Teams of three are called alliances, and take turns competing against other groups.

The FTC South Area Championship came down to a highly contested Match 3. A chance advance to the state championship was on the line for the six high school teams that reached the final round.

With the crowd cheering for the red and blue teams, the two alliances competed in a best-two-out-of-three round. La Joya Juarez Lincoln High School and Harmony School of Excellence- Laredo took the match.

Jumping and screaming with excitement, students embraced each other after pulling off a surprising upset.

“I like to say that … they’ve been a dark horse team all season,” Rivera said. “So for them to be a fourth seed for them to come back and basically win the whole thing, I mean they had an awesome finale, and now both teams are advancing to state.”

Carlos Hernandez gathers and speaks to the volunteer referees to figure out which team had the most points. Hernandez is a former student in the competition and has spent five years volunteering, mentoring and is now a part of the staff for First in Texas. (Omar Zapata | The Monitor)

Daniel Villanueva, Juarez Lincoln coach for the last seven years and an engineering teacher, felt the emotions after the victory, shedding a few tears of joy while celebrating with his students.

“This is our first time advancing to state,” Villanueva said, trying to hold back tears. “It feels awesome. I do it for the kids and it feels great. … I’m happy for them.”

Senior Cassandra Maldonado, involved since she was a freshman, said she couldn’t be more proud of the team.

Her message to her team going into the final championship match: “Just keep doing what we do, aka, winning and just to be calm and do it with confidence and we’ll have the potential to win. We were agüitadas after we lost one match … but we started pushing each other up, lifting each other up with energy to get to this point.”

The 10 teams headed to state will compete with the 72 best teams in Texas over the weekend of March 22 in Belton.

“It’s very exciting to see all these happy faces, tears, and emotions,” Rivera said.”It’s been a long season but we’re not done, the season still continues. The kids have a good amount of time, a couple of weeks in between to get ready for state and then there’s an opportunity for teams to advance to worlds. I am excited to see our Valley teams compete against the best of the best and I strongly feel that they are strong enough to compete against the best in the world.”

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