MCALLEN, RGV – When Nikki Rowe High School students compete in regional and state robotics competitions, coach David Ruiz tells them they are not just representing themselves, their teammates and their school.
They are also representing the South Texas region.
“It is not about one school against another, it is about South Texas against other people’s opinion of South Texas. I told my students who were going up to UIL state competition in Austin, we need to show them that we are very real, that we are very capable,” David Ruiz said.
Ruiz said the same goes for other Valley robotics teams competing in FIRST events.
“We may have some quirks here and there, but we are in our infancy. We are barely in our third year and look at us now. We are here, and we are making our presence felt. We showed that at the regionals competition this year when three of the Valley teams ended up in the top four in each league. That was impressive. We didn’t just fold. I was very proud of the performance,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz gave an interview to the Rio Grande Guardian about the team he coaches, known as the “Rowebotics Warriors,” when FIRST RGV presented awards to three of the founding members of the team – Millenium Star Rosales, Mikey Martinez, and Jonas Rodriguez. The three are headed off to university. Before heading out they were presented with FIRST RGV Honor Cords by the non-profit’s president, Jason Arms, for being founders of their team.
“We were one of the first teams that competed in the FIRST rescue events. We were one of the first FIRST robotics teams in the Valley. I think we helped others get involved in the STEM field,” Martinez said.
“When we started we could never have imagines how many teams there would be in the Valley. It is pretty awesome to see how FIRST has taken over the Valley and continued to spread. Not just students, but public-speakers, writers, it is not just about engineering. It is pretty awesome to be one of the first and to be able to say, we were the first ones and we helped spread it. The STEM fields need more recognition. We need more people to get involved.”
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Martinez recalled when he first realized the potential of mastering the construction of robotics.
“When I first joined I did not know what to expect but as soon as the bucket of parts spilled over, it got my mind going on what I could do with each part,” Martinez said. “I started experimenting, not just going by the instructions. Being open-minded and using your imagination to construct new parts and mechanisms of the robot. And not just working by yourself but collaborating with others and making sure we are all contributing to the team.” Martinez said.
Martinez said everyone in the team contributes to the project. “Everyone is encouraged to make adjustments. We make those adjustments because they seem fitting for the robot.”
Asked how beneficial robotics is for Valley students, Martinez said: “I think the kids are gaining good experience. They are figuring out their interest, whether it is mechanical, or electrical engineering. They are having a hands-on experience with FIRST. I hope FIRST continues to grow, not just in the Valley but across the world. It is a great organization.”
Rodriguez, who has already graduated from Rowe, said that as one of the original three or four members of the team, he now wants to give back. “I was a team member that was always dedicated to building and designing and using the notebook and the journal, to write as much as I could and to do as much as I can for the team.”
Asked what aspects of robotics he enjoys the most, Rodriguez said: “The wiring, the coding, just the mechanical aspect of building a robot. This is what inspired me to become a computer engineer. I liked the wiring aspect of the process. I figured out what I want to do with my life.”
Rodriguez said other students across the Valley are getting the same exposure to a potentially worthwhile career. “It is a great way for kids to get educated with mechanical and electrical engineering, to help them figure out what they want to do with their lives. I had a lot of fun here doing this. It was a great way for me to learn, a great opportunity for me help map out my future.”
Rosales has been president and ambassador of Rowe’s robotics team. She explained how it all started.
“I did compete a little bit in middle school. But I was not sure if there was going to be anything at high school. Then we heard about this competition called FIRST. So, I started off as a freshman, trying to make sure the robotics branch of STEM fully flourished at McAllen ISD. Club-wise, as of my junior year, I became FIRST president/ambassador,” Rosales said.
“The No. 1 thing I have tried to make sure is that all four of our current teams know is that the statement, more than a robot, is very true. I have been the pioneer when it comes to public outreach, public speaking, communications, the things we call soft skills. In robotics competitions, the judges want to see you are good at building and are good at STEM, but in reality, if you cannot talk about the product you have made, then where does it go?”
Like her colleagues, Martinez and Rodriguez, Rosales is thrilled to see how, in just three years, FIRST has taken off in the Valley. This year, the number is being capped at 5,000 students.
“It has been really good to see that through this competition that STEM has grown a lot down here. It was a bit of a surreal feeling to know that are pulling this off here, not just at Rowe but across the Valley. Our mark has been left here now.”
Asked if Valley students are good enough, Rosales said:
“Absolutely, and not just with kids that are well-rounded in STEM. Originally, I was a Theater kid and so I keep telling everybody when we recruit, you can come from art, you can come from dance, you can still play an important role here. It goes back to me being the main public speaker here. I am making sure, before I leave, that they have that skill set. So, when someone comes up and asks them about the robot, they can answer them with confidence. I know for sure that down here there is a lot of talent, not just in STEM.”
And the biggest takeaway? “I think the biggest takeaway you can take from STEM is one, organizational skills, being able to balance a physical robot to a design book, having to go through an interview process and then talking with your teammates about all of it. Being able to balance all these skills is a good foundation for the future,” Rosales said.
A Coach’s Perspective
Ruiz, whose background is in computer science, said coaching robotics after school hours came about through a conversation with Career Technical Education coordinator Diana Peña.
“Diana asked me to start the program. We started with about ten students. The students were having so much fun, they were here until 11 o’clock at night. We had to remind them that the teacher needed to go home. It was a great joy to watch them, just to see them do the things I wish I had the chance to do when I was young. To let them create ownership of what they were doing. It was a learning process. Just to see them grow, year on year over the last three years, it is just amazing.”
Ruiz said Rosales, Rodriguez and Martinez have all played pivotal roles in developing robotics at Nikki Rowe High School.
“I call Mikey the “All-in-One” because he takes ownership of any situation. He is a true leader. He would delegate and check up on how things were going, and then he would bring it all together. Rosales has been our spokesperson, a proponent for engineering. She helped give the organization direction. Her bucket list of things to do has been well-filled, promoting the program out in the community, in the elementary schools. To have that kind of leadership, from Mikey, Jonas and Millennium, behind the team is why we have gone from four students to a little over 30 students.”
Ruiz said he takes no credit for the team’s success.
“I am really proud of what they have accomplished. I tell them, I am just the one who makes sure the door is unlocked, that the robotic equipment is available and that the bus and the meals are paid for. I give them all the credit.”
Ruiz said when Valley robotics teams advanced to regional and state competitions, he and other coaches got a glimpse of how big FIRST was.
“It was an eye-opener to see how big this program really was. To go from an area that only had 12 teams, to areas that had 60-plus teams. We saw the Austin, San Antonio, Laredo and Corpus teams. This was the 2015-16 season. Team 11000 did so well they ranked first in their category, they advanced to super regionals. So, got to see teams from the southern states, from Georgia, all the way to New Mexico. That was just awe-inspiring,” Ruiz said.
“It was funny because some of the other teams had low numbers and they came up to us, they looked at our number, 1100 and said, you are a rookie team. The teams that saw us and could see we needed help, they chimed in. That really caught my attention.”
Ruiz said the way teams helped each other had a profound impact.
“When we came back, I told my director, my coordinator, we need this. We need this because it is extremely open, it is not a closed environment, it is open source. The kids are not shy about sharing what they know with each other. When I saw that, having been in industry myself, I thought, we need this. To have the students maintain a design book, perfect and hone their presentation skills, I knew this was important in the industry. Rather than just learn from a book. So, I am really glad we took on FIRST because the environment that that affords the students is the kind of environment I came from, where you had so many people sharing what they knew. So, you could walk away with more.”
FIRST has been around for a few decades. Asked how pleased he is that the Valley now has its own FIRST organization, Ruiz said:
“I think a lot of us had the idea of bringing something like this to the Valley, but Jason has afforded us the vehicle to bring this to our kids, to part of something bigger. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have something like this. I would not have known how. When FIRST came along, I thought, now we have a vehicle. It does show that there is a want for this. The kids are hungry for this, they are enjoying it and they are all in. And so are the coaches. I am learning from them and they are learning from me.”