MCALLEN, RGV – Diana A. Peña, coordinator for career technical education at McAllen ISD spoke for many at a recent FIRST-RGV robotics tournament when she said the non-profit is not just about building robots.

“One of the most important things the student gets from these robotics events, aside from making robots, is it focuses a lot on emotional intelligence and working collaboratively with a team of individuals they may or may not know. It focuses on the some of the key domains we teach here at McAllen ISD, beginning with self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation,” said Peña.

“As, Jason Arms, FIRST-RGV’s president and CEO will tell you, it is actually about building a community that is going to sustain itself through STEM careers, science, technology, engineering, mathematics.”

Diana Peña

FIRST-RGV is a non-profit comprising professionals, mentors and various volunteers from science, technology and engineering careers. The group aims to help students at all grade levels explore a STEM career while having fun learning. Peña said participants of FIRST will learn life skills in communications, business planning, programming/coding and be inspired to become a leader for tomorrows generation.

FIRST-RGV has four leagues: FIRST Lego League Jr., for K thru 3rd grade; FIRST Lego League, for 4th thru 8th grade, FIRST Tech, for 7th thru 12th grade, and FIRST Robotics Competition, for 9th thru 12th grades. Each league competes three times. Once the three meets are finished the total scores are collated, and the best teams advance to a regional event in the Rio Grande Valley. The winners of the Valley regional tournaments advance to a tournament in San Antonio, and then, potentially, on to Worlds.

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McAllen ISD’s Peña explained how her school district connects with FIRST-RGV.

“I oversee STEM for McAllen ISD and part of our work includes growing the FIRST Robotics Career Technical Student Organization, which has students from middle school and secondary high school. We have eight robotics teams from McAllen and they are all extremely talented. They compete in FIRST-RGV meets,” Peña said.

“We are very fortunate the Worlds are being held in Houston, Texas. We are hoping some of our McAllen teams can make it to Worlds. We are the district of champions. But even if they don’t, as long as a Valley team makes it to Worlds, we are going to be fine with that. It is all one community.”

Sammy Rivera is a robotics coach from Mission who has guided one of his teams to a FIRST world championship tournament. He said the growth in interest has been phenomenal.

Sammy Rivera

“Since we started participating in the FIRST Robotics competition, our team has grown very big, very fast. There was so much interest we started the FIRST Tech Challenge at middle, junior high and high schools. This last year, we advanced to the world championships in the FIRST Robotics Competition in San Antonio. We competed finished as a finalist, which qualified us as a wildcard for the world championship, in Houston and St. Louis. In Houston we finished in the Top 50 out of 400,” Rivera said.

“We have now had two Valley teams compete at World, it shows this region can compete with the best.”

Asked what the students get out of the FIRST tournaments, Rivera said: “Aside from the technical side they get a lot of team dynamic skills, leadership skills, they do not realize they are gaining. They learn how to play with great sportsmanship. The business side of it, the industrial side of it, there are lot of skills they are getting that they don’t realize, skills they do not get in the classroom. I highly recommend people come and see it, you do not do it justice watching it on video. It is a different type of learning.”

Asked about the value of FIRST-RGV, Rivera said: “This non-profit has provided so many opportunities, not just for my kids but all the teams. This is just what the Valley needed. There is raw talent in the Valley, we just have not uncovered it. We are just scratching the surface. I give a shout out to the organizers of FIRST-RGV, Jason Arms, Milly Hernandez and Mike Acevedo. Because of the competition, our teams are getting better and better by the day.”

A student’s perspective

FIRST-RGV is affiliated with FIRST, a non-profit that has now spread to 88 countries. Victor Menchaca, a student at McAllen High School, is a volunteer at FIRST-RGV meets. He was born in the Valley but moved about a lot because his father was in the Navy. Menchaca said he first came across FIRST while his father was stationed in Hawaii. He participated in FIRST’s First Lego League while living in Hawaii and stuck with robotics through middle school and high school. He came back to the Valley last year.

Victor Menchaca

“My love of STEM came from participating in the FIRST program. I always knew I had a knack for mathematics and science, but I never knew how to express it outside of school. Robotics gave me an outlet to express and explore new things. It has allowed me to grow, not only as an engineer but as a person,” Menchaca said.

Asked how FIRST can help the Valley, Menchaca said: “A lot of people here do not tend to get out, they were born here, they stay with their parents and they stay in this network. With the FIRST Robotics program we are able to travel to places like San Antonio, Houston, Georgia. That fear of leaving home is not there. And, we are growing. We are super excited that in just three years we have a First Robotics Competition team, the Mission team, No. 5960, which went to World Championship last year and became one of the top 50 robotics teams in the world. So, we are very proud to have those bragging rights.”

Menchaca, who hopes to build a career in aerospace engineering added: “Everyone should try FIRST Robotics. It is not football, it is not soccer, it is interesting, and you can find a career from it.”

Dr. Sharon Roberts, helps Mission CISD students who are interested in STEM careers and pays close attention to those involved in FIRST-RGV’s robotics competitions.

“I am extremely proud of them. We have great teams. All in all, we have 20 teams and they learn so much from participating in FIRST. They learn coding, robotics, building, working together, communications, it is awesome. One big team Alton Memorial Junior High and Mission High competed in FIRST Robotics Competition and went all the way to Worlds last year. This year we are going into the First Tech Challenge,” Roberts said.

“I really think the sky is the limit for these kids. All the things they are learning in robotics carries over into everything else they are doing, 21st Century skills, collaboration. We have awesome coaches, they dedicate many, many hours, working with our kids. Teaching them not just to build robots but to work together, to problem solve, to collaborate. This is the future.”