HARLINGEN, RGV – Victoria Chaparro, a senior at Los Fresnos High School, has explained what skills students learn when they participate in FIRST RGV’s robotics programs.

Chaparro and her teammates participated in the opening tournament of the season for the FIRST Tech Challenge on Saturday. The tournament took place at Harlingen CISD’s STEM 2 Preparatory Academy. 

“We have called our team Falcon Punch. Falcon because that is our mascot and Punch because we are trying to be powerful,” Chaparro said.

Victoria Chaparro

Asked about the skills students learn from FIRST competitions, Chaparro said: “I was speaking to Glenn Ellis from Jacobs Engineering company the other day and he was talking a lot about the impact of internships for those who have already gone to college. This (FIRST) program is for kids who do not have a college education and if you know about anything about college, it breaks people down and builds them back up with an analytical state of mind. These children have not gone through that yet and they are allowed to use the creative parts of their brain before they are completely gone.”

Chaparro said many adults either come and judge the students or observe them in competition and they get to see the creativity at work.

“They get new ideas they have never thought of before. You have a room full of kids trying to figure out problems similar to the problems the people at NASA are trying to figure out,” Chaparro said.

“So, these skills are applicable anywhere. You could go to any engineering company, any robotics company, you could work for some of the biggest companies in the world that have nothing to do with robotics and still apply some of these skills, including networking, coding, putting a puzzle together, working with a team. Working in teams is needed in almost every career and every country. Sometimes, the only language you have in common with the people around you is the ability to make a project work.”

Currently, only 14 percent of engineers are women, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. FIRST RGV’s website shows that 38 percent of students participating in its robotics programs are girls, with several all-girls teams.

The challenge facing Falcon Punch was to build a robot from parts provided by FIRST. The robot had to navigate a terrain not to dissimilar from the Moon. FIRST has based this year’s competitions on Space to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing.

“We have similar challenges the Rover on the Moon has to face: to climb over small craters, pick up small artifacts like rocks or other minerals, the ability to climb up different areas and function in a small area of space so we don’t take up more room than necessary,” Chaparro said. 

Asked how complicated it was to build the robot, Chaparro said: “It is extremely complicated. There are lots of small parts one has to put together. We had to cut the plexiglass ourselves, heating it up to curve and sanding it down with power tools. These parts are extremely complicated to put together and to configure. The battery and the coding all take a long time to put together to create a successful robot.”

Chaparro and her colleagues spent about four hours on the project during the school week and gave up a number of Saturdays also. 

“We started two months ago, with the brainstorming process and we have slowly built up from there,” she said. 

“The STEM program at our school is a lot smaller than we would like it to be. We wish it were bigger but the people who are in the program are very dedicated to this project and what we do.”

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Asked if the robot was ready for action, Chaparro said: “We are ready to compete with a rough draft of our robot. It is doing what we expected it to do. We 3D-printed some of the parts because we did not have everything we needed. Our robot has the ability to pick up minerals and put them in a basket, put them where they are supposed to go, and climb over the crater but it has a couple of challenges still to face.”

The next FIRST Tech Challenge competition takes place December 1 at Sharyland Pioneer High School.