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LA JOYA, Texas – The summer camps put on by FIRST RGV to give students the chance to build robots would sometimes draw hundreds of attendees.

One of the main features of our success over the past five years with summer camps was the camaraderie built up as students worked in collective spirit in a “gracious professionalism” environment that encourages students to compete but work with their competitors to be successful as well.

Now, because of the coronavirus, students are going to have to design them at home, on their own.

FIRST RGV, a nonprofit based in the Rio Grande Valley, has joined forces with South Texas College and La Joya ISD to offer a unique “virtual” robotics programs.

“It is an innovative robotics program using remote learning platforms such as Google Classrooms and Zoom,” said Jason Arms, president and CEO of FIRST RGV, explaining the new format.

“It will allow the kids to have hands on robotics time thanks to STC shipping Lego EV3 kits to each of the students’ homes. The student will have the kit and our instructors with FIRST RGV will deliver the program and work together to inspire them with the excitement of FIRST Robotics to pursue a STEM career out of this program through our summer camp.”

Coming out of the coronavirus lockdown, Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed traditional summer camps to take place. However, Arms said there was no chance of FIRST RGV hosting such events this summer  We have been communicating with community leaders, school superintendents and our partners and it is just not safe yet.

“We are sensitive to the fact that it is not safe to have a big class like we normally do. We have had summer camps with hundreds of students participating, but with COVID-19, it is just not an option for us and is not a responsible thing for us to provide.”

Realizing COVID-19 might impact their summer, not to say official fall programs, FIRST RGV’s leadership brainstormed ways of continuing to educate students in a digital or remote event setting. This is a time that requires us to be innovative and responsive to our communities needs and concerns.

“We have responded really quick to change how our summer camps are delivered by modifying our summer program to allow kids to enjoy building robots at home with their parents. This is a great opportunity to engage the kids at home, have the parents with them and to have FIRST excitement. There is some homework associated with this camp that requires them to work with their parents on solving some problems and finding some applications for the robot they are building.”

FIRST is an international institution that puts together robotics competitions for hundreds of thousands of students across the world. However, the program FIRST RGV, STC, and La Joya ISD are putting on is definitely homegrown.

“All of this is proof that the Valley is a very special and diverse place. We have come together as a community really quickly. La Joya ISD is one of the biggest school districts in the RGV. South Texas College is a great partner of higher education so the three of us, were a great fit to work together to pioneer this offering. We offered to develop a modified curriculum and lesson plan and deliver that with the help of STC to the La Joya ISD studdents. We know it is going to be a success.”

Arms gave a shoutout to Dr Carlos Margo, associate dean of industrial training and economic development at STC, for being “adaptive and responsive and looking at new opportunities and new technologies and for being a game changer in our community.”

Arms explained: “Sometimes it is not comfortable to work outside of the box but we are proud to have been a partner with STC for over four years now, to help us engage with K thru 12.”

Thus far, 85 students in in the 3rd grade at La Joya have signed up for the summer camp. It comprises 20 hours of “virtual” learning. 

“They will have hands on robot time to build and program the robot and will be given some basic competitions at the end. This is our way of keeping a little bit of competition in there, celebrate the amazingness of FIRST and let the kids celebrate STEM,” Arms said.

“We want to keep the kids engaged, not to just play with a robot but to learn. I think we have done a really good job working with South Texas College and La Joya ISD to come up with an inclusive program that is going to be a lot of fun for the kids and reinforce the principles of First Robotics and its core values. This program even allows for students with disabilities to participate and be part of our robotics community.”

Arms said FIRST RGV is looking to partner with other higher ed institutions to do something similar for other school districts. “We believe we can copy and paste our model in other school districts. This is something we developed, it is going to be really successful and we are excited about it.”

He explained: “We are being responsive. If we had put on a traditional summer camp the kids would have been pressuring their parents to let them go. We are doing the responsible thing.” 

Asked about the regular official fall competition season, Arms said FIRST RGV is ready to scale things down, modify the size of the events and quickly adapt as needed. “We can go online and implement remote events quickly, as we need to. We have used the time apart to come up with good plans and we are optimistic for a great competition season. We have been communicating with UIL and are working with them to align both of our organizational needs.”

Arms was also asked how the digital divide is impacting FIRST RGV since students are going online for the summer camps and possibly for the fall . It is an issue he knows well having previously been part of the study at PSJA and developed a pilot program to install broadband WiFi into homes in Las Milpas, working with the City of Pharr and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“I was blessed to be part of the first study. You have got to have broadband to have access to real world opportunities such as tele-medicine, participate in the global economy, do online banking and of course participate in a quality program such as ours. At our camps, we have some kids attending over cell phones, some kids on Chrome Books, some kids on iPads, some on Android tablets, some on computers. We have some kids that would love to participate but do not have access to it. “We still suffer horribly down here because of the digital divide and lack of access.”


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