MCALLEN, RGV – FIRST RGV says it is going to have to limit the number of teams that can enter their robotics competitions – unless the non-profit receives more local sponsorship.
The news comes as three FIRST teams from the Rio Grande Valley are heading to a “super regionals” meet in Athens, Georgia. If successful there, the teams from La Joya ISD, McAllen ISD, and Mission CISD will be in FIRST’s world championships.
“When I got involved with FIRST in 2015 our numbers were pretty small. We started out with about 390 students in the four-county Valley area. The next year we went up to 790 students and now we have over 3,800 students competing this school year. We have seen a significant increase.” said Jason Arms, president of FIRST RGV.
“Next year we are going to cap our programs at around 5,000 students, which is 500 teams combined between all of the four programs. We have the capacity for 600 teams, but we need more financial support at the local level.”
For Inspiration and Recognition of Science & Technology (FIRST) operates in 88 countries around the world. It aims to empower students to achieve their full potential by making hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programs more widely available to underserved students across the country and throughout the world. FIRST RGV is a non-profit affiliated with FIRST in Texas.
Arms gave a presentation about FIRST RGV at a conference hosted by Region 1 Education Service Center on South Padre Island recently.
“Texas accounts for ten percent of all teams in FIRST around the world. And we are the fastest growing area in Texas. What does that tell you? It tells you there is tremendous interest by students in STEM in the Valley. But, unfortunately, we have to slow down our growth. We have to purposely throw the break on,” Arms told the audience.
Arms reassured a member of the audience that existing teams would be accepted next year. “If you are a returning team, you are going to receive priority. But I ask that you let us know you are coming back as soon as possible,” he said.
Asked by a reporter why FIRST RGV is having to throw on the break, Arms said: “We are having to slow it down because there is just Milly Hernandez and I. Neither of us do this full time. We do not have as much local support as we would like. Remember, we are a non-profit. To support these programs, we have got to have the money to support the events and training sessions. We are doing something almost every Saturday between October and April.”
Asked if a competitor might step in an organize a robotics competition, if FIRST RGV could not service the demand, Arms said: “Anyone can sell you a robot. You will find we are the only robotics group that has a totally encompassing program that includes the scholarship opportunities once they graduate. There are other programs, but we know FIRST works!”
Among the competitions FIRST runs are FIRST Lego League, Jr., FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition that encompasses all K-12 students that may be enrolled in public, private or home school.
“Last year we spent approximately $22,000 to put on the events. We have lots of enthusiastic volunteers, but there are costs. We have to feed them, do background checks, get them a t-shirt, have liability insurance, have worker’s comp insurance. All of that costs money. That doesn’t include the laptops, displays and A/V equipment that is needed to make the events successful.” Arms said.
“This year, because of our growth, we are at about $36,000 on expenses. That accounts for approximately 3,800 students Valley-wide. Unfortunately, the logistics of bringing together more than 5,000 students in more than 25 events annually is taxing on a very limited non-profit budget. And, unfortunately, have seen a reduction in funding support by one of our primary local supporters.”
Arms said because FIRST focuses on robotics, soft skills, engineering and programming, the manufacturing industry in South Texas might be particularly interested in mentoring and/or supporting teams since FIRST RGV is in its backyard.
“Some do, but we really need more to step up and give back to the students in the RGV. This will help grow the bi-national workforce of tomorrow,” Arms said.
“I would like to give a shout out to Trung Nguyen at Royal Technologies and the for his generous support of those robotics teams in the Mission area. We are hoping others step up to the plate like he did to support the kids.”
Arms said FIRST RGV also appreciates a $5,000 donation from the City of Pharr/Pharr Economic Development Corporation EDC and a donation from Vanguard Academy of Pharr.
Arms noted that Dr. Art Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD, is on the FIRST in Texas board of directors and was one of the early adopters of FIRST in all his schools.
“Harlingen CISD has committed to continue to host our lower Valley events for next school year, so that will help. Instead of trucking all the equipment across the RGV, we can now rely on them to setup and tear down. Then our volunteers don’t have to invest as much time running events,” Arms said.
“Dr. Cavazos gets it. He understands the need to work together and he understands that FIRST is much more than just robots.”
In his presentation at the Region One conference, Arms said the Valley has “some amazing talent down here.” He said he would like all students in the RGV that are interested in a STEM career to experience a FIRST robotics event. “The energy is amazing and it’s the hardest fun they will ever have. To be able to graduate high school and then if you choose to go to college, use the scholarships. It helps students not have to stress over student debt.”
Arms added that the FIRST Robotics Program (FRC) is amazing.
“It is like the Ferrari of robotics. It you get an opportunity to see an FRC competition it is massive. One competition field takes up a whole basketball gym. For 2019, we are trying really hard to bring an FRC qualifying event here to the Valley. With the rest of the world loving to come to Texas, we are confident that this would give an economic impact to the hosting city since it includes over 3,000 hotel nights and teams travel from all over the world. The closest competition we have is in San Antonio and that draws people from China, Japan, Mexico and places like that. It is pretty cool.”
Valley success in Austin
Fifteen of the more than 123 Valley teams that competed in the 2017-2018 FIRST Tech Challenge game – themed ‘Relic Recovery’ – advanced to Austin, Texas this year for a regional meet.
Teams for La Joya, McAllen and Mission school districts advanced to the Super Regional meet in Athens, Georgia. This takes place March 8-10.
“We are hopeful that our teams will advance to the FIRST World Championship that will be held at the Houston Convention Center, April 18-22,” Arms said.
“There, teams from approximately 35 countries encompassing more than 29,000 students in K-12 will come together to celebrate STEM and to spotlight their achievements.”
Arms added: “We are proud that the RGV has had such enormous growth. Unfortunately, we have got to have some help to make sure we can keep up with the demand.”
Invitation to Mexico
Arms said FIRST RGV is reaching out to Mexico to get some of its FIRST teams to participate in the 2nd Annual Roadbotics FIRST Tech Challenge event in Pharr on April 7. The event is part of the 2018 Hub Phest.
“This unique event incorporates the love of robotics into the annual community festival that features live music, great food and a lot of family fun,” Arms said.
“The event is open to teams in Texas and in Mexico that participate in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) program. We are excited to be able to turn this into a bi-national offering using a closed city street in downtown Pharr.”
We invite all parents that have students interested in STEM to come and watch this exciting robotics competition take place as part of the Pharr HubPhestival, Arms added.