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Members of the Mission Boys & Girls Club learn about robotics at a STEM initiative administered by Sylvan Learning in conjunction with Mission EDC and Royal Technologies.

MISSION, RGV – A curriculum for educating five to 13-year olds in Mission, Texas, in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math has something of a unique feature – it was developed in part by a local manufacturing firm.

The pilot project involves around 200 members of the Mission Boys & Girls Club receiving STEM education during the summer months. A further 200 more will participate in the project in the Fall and a another 100 next Spring.

The project brings together Sylvan Learning RGV, Mission Economic Development Corporation, Mission Boys & Girls Club, and Royal Technologies, an injection molding company that manufactures plastic components for high end office furniture and interior automotive parts. The company has 144 employees at its new Mission manufacturing plant.

Susan Valverde, CEO of Sylvan Learning RGV.
Susan Valverde, CEO of Sylvan Learning RGV.

“We are in this for the long haul and we want to see young children get a taste of engineering and manufacturing. We want to help this region grow its manufacturing base and be involved with new technology,” said Trung Nguyen, plant manager for Royal Technologies in Mission.

“We want to be able to show the community what engineering is and what manufacturing is. We want to change the perspective that manufacturing is a dirty industry. It is a clean and respectable industry. We want to show the children there are a lot of opportunities in this field.”

Asked if he felt students aged five to 13 might be too young to be interested in engineering, Nguyen said, not at all. “I believe it is the right age. That is why we targeted a younger group of students. Children of that age are always inquisitive and looking for new things. We figured if we started younger it could have a long lasting impact for the community.”

Asked how Royal Engineering played a role in developing the curriculum for the pilot project, Nguyen said: “The main things we spoke about are some basic skills that are really important, such as critical thinking and team building. Those were two items we wanted to target on because that is where we feel there is a need. Sylvan focused a lot on the science and engineering. Where we feel we can more impactful is focusing on the soft skills. We want the students to learn these skills at a very young age.”

Royal Technologies’ Mission plant is situated on 12 acres of land at the Mission Expressway Industrial Park. It has a 325,000 square foot manufacturing facility. Its corporate headquarters is in Hudsonville, Michigan. The total number of employees is over 1,000, Nguyen said.

Sylvan Learning recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Mission Boys & Girls Club to announce the STEM pilot project. Sylvan’s connection to Royal Technologies was made through Mission EDC, which helped recruit the company to Mission. Mission EDC started its collaboration with Sylvan Learning last year through Code the Town, a program to get more students and teachers interested in computer coding. “We want our workers in the Rio Grande Valley to be using their minds, not just their hands,” said Alex Meade, CEO of Mission EDC.

Susan Valverde, executive director of Sylvan Learning in the Valley, said she is delighted Royal Technologies is helping to craft its STEM curriculum.

“Royal Technologies wants to make sure we have an industry focus and an industry influence in terms of what kids learn about engineering and the careers in engineering. What is really neat is that we are doing the pilot program for the whole Sylvan system – for Sylvan Learning North America. The entire system will be informed by what happens here at this pilot project in Mission,” Valverde said.

Valverde said the CEO of Sylvan Learning nationally visited Mission a few weeks ago and was excited to learn about the project and to meet Meade. “The excitement throughout the company is amazing. To think that Mission and the RGV are leaving a mark on how we develop a STEM curriculum and how we get kids excited about STEM jobs is worth celebrating.”

Valverde said that while Sylvan has been invested in STEM education for many years there are some unique features about the pilot project. “What is different and unique about this is that we are taking our engineering programs and rather than developing them in a corporate office or developing them in a classroom, we are working with employees and employers, people that are engineers. They are telling us what students need to know about this career at their age. So, there is a lot of influence by industry in our programming. That is what is unique about the program. Having the employer influence uniquely qualifies us to help students understand what the career demands are going to be.”

Sylvan’s STEM course is free to students at Mission Boys & Girls Club. This was achieved, Valverde said, by pooling the resources of Sylvan Learning RGV, Mission EDC and Royal Technologies.

“We are able to serve 200 students during the summer months, another 200 in the fall and another 100 in the spring. That is what we are calling our pilot year. It will help us develop and scale this up even larger. Because it is a Mission initiative it is for Mission children and residents. We hope that other Valley communities will join,” Valverde said.

“When these programs roll out to the whole Sylvan system they will have a very specific fingerprint from the Mission students and the Mission initiative. They are driving a lot of what kids are going to see at Sylvan centers all over the country.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Valverde was asked what the difference is between Code the Town and the latest venture it is working on with Mission EDC, called Enginuity.

“Enginuity is a build on Code the Town. Code the Town is all about computer coding. We have a huge deficit in the nation for coding. Alex (Meade) and Mission EDC decided to do something about it. We decided that exposure to coding in general at a very young age might be the solution. Then, a couple of months ago we thought, why not do the same thing for engineering. We have an advanced manufacturing firm in town that wants to give back to the community and do more to influence kids and education. Bringing Royal Technologies and Mission EDC to the table, we decided to take the existing model, just as we have it structured with Code the Town and build it with an engineering focus.”

Valverde said developing and rolling out the STEM pilot project could not be more timely.

“We think this is timely because there is so much economic development in the Valley right now, whether it is UT-Rio Grande Valley, the medical school, or SpaceX, and anything in between. There are a lot of ancillary things that are going to happen as a result of all that development.”

Pointing to the students that participated in the ribbon cutting ceremony, Valverde said: “These are the students that, if we get them interested now, will be the pipeline for sustaining all this development further down the road. It is exciting that we got these projects. I would hate to lose them further down the road because we can’t staff them. I think we all have an obligation, those of us in education, to do something about that.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series about Mission EDC’s efforts to boost the STEM talent pool and foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the community. Parts Two and Three will be posted in the coming two weeks.