MCALLEN, RGV – Jason Arms, president and CEO of FIRST-RGV, gave the Rio Grande Guardian an in-depth interview about the non-profit he leads. He first pointed out just how big the FIRST footprint is.

“FIRST is in 88 countries around the world, it encompasses close to 250,000 students, aged K thru 12. And it gives out millions of dollars in scholarships,” Arms said.

“Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we are excited about the project. We started out four years ago with about nine teams. Last year we had about 87 teams, and this year, through all four programs, the FIRST Lego League, Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and the FIRST Robotics Competition, we are proud to report over 312 teams, Valley-wide. Each team has anywhere between ten and 15 students. So, do the math on how many students we are impacting.”

Jason Arms

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Arms pointed out that all local monies FIRST-RGV collects stays in the Rio Grande Valley. However, he also thanked the national and state sponsors of FIRST because their investment helps the Valley also.

Arms explained that most of the group’s fundraising comes internally by providing professional services to school districts. He said all local monies FIRST-RGV collects stays in the Rio Grande Valley. However, he also thanked the national and state sponsors of FIRST because their investment helps the Valley also. He singled out the Texas Workforce Commission for special praise.

“FIRST gets support at the state level from the Texas Workforce Commission and we get direct support from Labor commissioner Julian Alvarez, a Valley native, of course. He gets to come down very often and we are proud to have him around. He is a big supporter of the Rio Grande Valley. He is excited because he sees the light bulb is on,” Arms said.

“So, I must give a shout out to TWC and Julian for their great support of STEM in the Valley. Julian supports us in robotics and coding. He knows that with FIRST, it is much more than just robotics, it is about soft skills, people skills, programing, using java-based programming skills and you also happen to get the chance to build a robot.”

Arms said the unique thing about FIRST is every year it changes its games, so the interest of students is maintained.

“If a student was in the game last year, when they come back to school, there is a new game. Every year it is something different. And, it is task-based robotics. The students will get a kit of parts that can be used year over year and every year they announce a new game. So, it is the teacher’s responsibility to check out the game animation and help the students design a robot that will score points in the new game.”

Arms said there are two parallel paths with FIRST.

“One is the actual robot competition that you are seeing here today. But there is another side about the awards. Every year we give out an Inspire award which is an award that has nothing to do with the competition. It is about the team itself and how they came together,” he said, giving, by way of example, the case of Buell High School in Pharr.

“Their robot wouldn’t even power on. But they actually went all the way to the world championship because of their story. They were a group of students that were in alternative school. They came together as a team and they did amazing things. In fact, their student coach was a lady who had anger management problems and she received a direct scholarship from a local business, a $50,000 scholarship for nursing school upon graduation from high school. This is how we know FIRST works.”

As well as the team from Buell, Arms is also proud of a community-based team from Roma. While most teams are launched from a school district the Roma team came about thanks to parents who would meet at a local Burger King.

“We are so proud of the team from Roma because they do not have the financial support of anyone. So, we have been working with the Texas Workforce Commission to give them some grants. FIRST-RGV has given them some direct grants as well. We are very proud because that is what FIRST is about. It is not about buying the robotics part. It is not about having a super, all-star team. It is about inspiring kids to be the future STEM leaders of tomorrow,” Arms said.

“The parents came together to form a team and provide coaching for the kids. They have toured the Roma Water Treatment Center, they have also toured the Falcon Dam, to understand how that water delivery component plays into this game with our First Lego League program.”

The reason the Roma team has focused on hydro-dynamics is because this is a component of the FIRST Lego League game this year.

“It is about the delivery of water for the human race. Every year in our FIRST Lego League program, the game is based on how we can better interact with the world around us. Last year it was ‘Animal Allies.’ The purpose of the game was, how can human beings be nicer to animals. We know we have a sustainability issue, so we try to get students at a very young age to start thinking about sustainability,” Arms said.

“In this year’s hydro-dynamics game, the purpose is for kids to do the research about water delivery and just how much fresh water we have and how much sea water we have, and how much water we have that we cannot use because it is contaminated. It is about getting kids at an early age to start thinking about sustainability because we know their generation is going to have a sustainability problem.”

Arms concluded the interview by pointing out that FIRST-RGV helps students throughout their school years.

“This program is not just one event. We pick them up in kindergarten and we bring them all the way through their high school years, we drop them out of high school with a high school diploma, being inspired, in some cases, to become a programmer or an engineer, and we drop right off into college with 22 million dollars in scholarships to further become leaders of tomorrow.”