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MCALLEN, RGV – When South Texas College’s Summer Automation & Robotics Program started in 2015, 62 elementary, middle, and high students participated.

This year the number has jumped to 400-plus. Next year, when a new building will be open at the college’s technology campus in south McAllen, Carlos Margo, STC’s Associate Dean of Industrial Training & Economic Development, expects the program to expand to 800-plus students.

“There is great interest from students and school districts. La Joya reached out to us to see if they could send a couple of buses of students for this week’s camp. We welcomed them with open arms. Word is spreading with minimal promotion. It is a very popular program,” Margo said.

Students aged seven to 18 have been attending the program. Different activities are arranged for different age groups.

“A week-long camp starts with two-dimensional design to a three-dimensional working robot that the students build and program. The instructors work with them on different activities and different competitions,” Margo said. “And on Fridays we invite parents to see what their children have worked on.”

Margo said there is one obvious campus for STC to hold its Summer Automation & Robotics Program.

“We hold the program at the Technology Campus because we have our automation FESTO here. We can build the robots here and give the students hands-on activities. They use industry grade equipment,” Margo.

“You can see the excitement this generates. The students get hands on experience with activities that are at the core of STEM, science, technology, engineering and math. They learn about engineering design, automation and programming, work on scripts and codes for the robots. It is all connected to engineering and technology.”

As well as giving students something fun to do during the summer holidays, STC sees a long-term benefit for the Rio Grande Valley.

“We are building enthusiasm to foster tomorrow’s engineers for the Rio Grande Valley. There is an existing skills gap and even bigger looming gap nationwide. We decided two years ago we had to start taping into the youth, not only to get them interested but educated in this field,” Margo explained.

Asked about the skills gap, Margo threw out a startling statistic.

“By 2025 there will be a couple of million jobs that will go unfilled in the United States due to a skills gap in the STEM field. Once student at a time, we need to start chipping away at this. So, we are addressing the skills gap directly and the Valley is going to benefit. If prospective employers see this pipeline they will more likely contact our EDCs. Prospective companies always ask, what are you doing to fill this gap. What we are doing at STC helps sell our region.”

Asked about STC new building, currently under construction off Military Highway and Ware Road, Margo said: “It will house an automation lab, allowing us to almost triple the size of our robotics lab and industrial automation. That is going to be the core of our initiatives going forward: industrial training in automation and robotics. Machining labs, our tool & die academy, and other construction trades as well, it is all about expanding our technical training.”

Margo finished the interview by thanking his staff, STC President Shirley Reed, the STC board of trustees, participating school districts and the community at large.

“We have instructors that are highly trained and certified. They have done a wonderful job in making this happen. It takes a team to put something together like this. And it is week after week. We started in early June and will finish in late August. Every week is a different camp,” Margo said.

“I want to say thank you to the community and to the school districts, such as La Joya and PSJA. We have a lot of community partners. Our President, Dr. Reed, has supported this from day one, as has our board of trustees. We feel it is vitally important we provide this training for our students.”

Editor’s Note: The photos in the slideshow accompanying this story were taken by Apolonio Sandoval, Jr.