MCALLEN, RGV – The McAllen Education Foundation is to donate $65,000 to McAllen ISD in order to boost the number of students participating in FIRST RGV’s robotics competitions.

MEF is a a philanthropic, tax-exempt, public corporation that operates independently of McAllen ISD and is governed by a board made up of business and civic leaders from the community. FIRST RGV is a non-profit that runs robotics competitions in conjunction with career and technical education departments at Valley school districts.

Annie Holand Miller

“McAllen currently has 51 teams. Our goal is to add 20 FIRST Lego League Junior teams, that would be one FLL Junior team at every elementary school,” said MEF President Annie Holander Miller. “Then we would add 60 FIRST Lego League teams, three at every elementary school. And then six FIRST Lego League teams, one at every middle school. We would go from roughly 510 students to, I think we calculated 1,300 students.”

Asked how much MEF has agreed to invest, Miller said:

“What we are looking at is investing $65,000. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this. It has been eye-opening to a lot of our community members to learn about robotics. When you hear robotics, you think computers and coding. You do not think about all of the other ways that students are impacted with the presentation skills, with the art skills. It is truly a complete STEAM-plus approach.”

STEAM stands for Science, Technology. Engineering, Arts, and Math. Asked what soft skills students learn by participating in robotics competitions, Miller said: “Critical thinking, problem solving, communications, team work.”

Miller has two children at Ben Milam Elementary School in McAllen. She said she first learned about FIRST’s robotics competitions through friends who had children at the school.

“The night before the kids could sign up to be on the robotics team, it was sort of all the buzz among the parents; that the students had to get to school by 7 a.m., because the kids needed to be in line, that it was the first 30 kids. I just could not figure out what was all this whole robotics thing,” Miller said.

“Later in the year I learned a little bit more about some of the work the teachers were doing with the students and some of the equipment that was needed at the school. That was really when my eyes were opened to the whole approach of robotics. Initially, I thought that robotics was simply coding and computers and engineering. I was able to later learn that it really is a more holistic education approach. It is an opportunity to look at every aspect of education, every aspect of a child, of a student.”

Miller said her understanding of the value of robotics for elementary, middle and high school students has also been aided by teachersat Milam and through a meeting with Christian Quintanilla, principal at Milam, Diana Peña, in McAllen ISD career and technical education department, and Jason Arms, president of FIRST RGV. “That was really where I better understood the whole concept, the whole approach of robotics,” Miller said.

Miller said she has yet to experience the excitement of a FIRST robotics competition.

“I hope to get to one soon,” she said. “I am hoping to get one soon. I am hoping that next year my first-grader and third-grader will be participating. At Milam, the morning that kids could sign up to be on the team, there was a line wrapped around the school. The kids want this. That is what’s exciting. The kids are asking for this. They want to learn more. They want to be engaged in learning. That is the key to so much with education. You have got to get them engaged.”

Miller said that while boosting the number of students that get to experience FIRST competitions is laudable, there could be an even greater benefit for the greater McAllen community.

“I think these teams are amazing. I think it is really great to watch the kids that get to compete, compete. But what I am even more excited about is finding a way to expose every child in the McAllen Independent School District to the concept of robotics. Not just the students who are participating on the competitive teams, but making sure that we let every student see what this is all about,” Miller said.

“My personal hope is that we can find students, particularly K-thru-5 students, who may not necessarily be on a college-ready path. They might come from a family with a long line of auto mechanics. They may come from a long line of machinery employees. And, what happens is, once they get to high school and we start saying to them, listen, figuring out how this motor, how this engine works, that is engineering. Well, if we wait until they are in high school, it is too late. It is really too late to change anything for them. Whereas, if we can identify them, K-thru-5, we have a real opportunity to really transform where they are going and where their path is.”

Miller added: “It is awesome to have the competitiive teams. What we are looking to do, with our support, through the foundation, is more than double the number of students who are participating in the competitive teams. But again, more than that, what we want to do is, we really want to expose all the kids. Typically, what happens with these competitive teams, these after-school clubs is the kids who get involved are the kids whose parents are involved and engaged. The parents know what is going on at school, the kids usually have more of a support system. What we really need to do is dig in and make sure we are arming every teacher in the school to be able to help identify kids who may not be as plugged in. We need to find them and make sure that we are getting them involved.”