ALTON, RGV – The former dean of engineering at UT-Pan American has given his blessing to FIRST RGV’s robotics program.

Miguel Gonzalez served as a judge at an event at Alton Memorial, Jr., High School on Saturday. The work requirement him to assess the quality of robots produced by over 700 students.

Miguel Gonzalez

“This is the first time I have been a judge and I am having a wonderful time. FIRST RGV is a wonderful initiative and to have 700 students here today is incredible,” said Gonzalez, who is now Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at UT-Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg.

FIRST is a non-profit that guides students towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM. It gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships. FIRST RGV is the Valley’s chapter of the international program. It devises competitions for elementary, middle and high school students to enter. Many of the students form robotics teams in school and get guidance from science teachers. Others do it themselves, outside of school.

Gonzalez said he was struck by just how much fun the robotics teams have.

“A lot of the enthusiasm you see here today has a lot to do with the organizers. Jason and Milly and others have done a tremendous job in getting this up and running. You look at the coaches, a lot of them are our former (UTRGV) students. You see their enthusiasm and it transfers to the kids, it transfers to the parents. It becomes a huge family activity,” Gonzalez said.

The founders of FIRST RGV are Jason Arms, former IT and Media director at the City of Pharr, and Milly Hernandez, program coordinator at the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, which is part of UTRGV’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Asked how he got involved, Gonzalez said: “I have known about FIRST for many years, long before the Valley chapter started. I heard wonderful things about it. The organizers of the Valley chapter reached out to me and asked if I would serve as a mentor, to make connections and encourage our students to get involved. Now I have seen it up close and personal, I am even more impressed. It is a tremendous opportunity for the Valley in general and for the kids in particular to get engaged in the STEM fields. It is a tremendous initiative.”

Asked if producing more students with STEM qualifications would help the Valley land more advanced manufacturing and engineering companies, Gonzalez said: “The young population we have is of interest to companies. If you establish the appropriate programs, provide our students with a solid education, and then add specialties like tooling and Lean Six Sigma, we will make a breakthrough. All of this will be attractive to companies.”

Asked for a wrap-up remark about FIRST RGV’s robotics competition, Gonzalez said: “From a STEM perspective, it is second to none. It is a really great initiative.”

A Student’s Perspective

Another of the judges at the Alton meet was Cynthia Chapa, aged 22. Chapa is studying engineering at UTRGV and has a fulltime job lined up at Texas Instruments in Dallas. Chapa said she was serving as a judge in order to “give back” to the community.

“When I see all these kids, over 700 here today, I realize the potential in the RGV is incredible. We did not have this when I was in high school. There were no clear pathways to go into the STEM fields. I do outreach with students to encourage them to go into STEM careers. It is something I am really passionate about and so to be a part of this is amazing,” Chapa said.

As a judge at the FIRST RGV meet, Chapa had to ask questions of the students, such as how the team was formed, how the robot was created and whether any sponsorship of the team had been sought.

Cynthia Chapa

“Some of the kids we have spoken to today, they developed their own program, without any help. They do not have a robotics team at school. That is inspirational.”

Chapa said creating robots in a team setting and then entering their robots in a competition can help students that do not even plan to go into a STEM career.

“Some students say they are not going to pursue a career in engineering when they go to college, but they find this program interesting to do in the meantime. There are a lot of drugs going around in the RGV and one of the stories we heard was that kids do robotics to steer themselves away from drugs. It is an activity to keep them occupied, so they are kept away from the path towards drugs. It is really cool.”

Chapa said that while she did not know much about a career in STEM when she was at Mission High School five years ago, times have changed.

“STEM is getting bigger and bigger here in the Valley. The word is getting out. I know UTRGV just expanded their medical program, hopefully we can do that later on with engineering and the STEM careers. I am part of an organization called the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to spread the word – to go to the elementary, middle and high schools and provide awareness about STEM, to hopefully get students from the RGV go on to bigger and better things.”

Chapa told the Rio Grande Guardian how she landed her job with Texas Instruments in Dallas.

“This past semester I attended a national woman’s conference and through that I was able to get three fulltime offers. Not here in the Valley, unfortunately, but I got two fulltime offers from Northrop Grumman, one in California and one in Chicago, and I got another one with Texas Instruments, in Dallas. I have already accepted the one with Texas Instruments.

“If I can do it, so can these students here today. I did not have all these resources, these robotics competitions, when I was at high school. I did not have this on my resume. If I am able to get this offer from such a big company, they can do it too. This is a resource I did not have. It is going to take you one step further.”

Chapa said a college friend of hers, Priscilla Castillo also served as a judge at the FIRST RGV meet in Alton. “She also got a fulltime offer. She was able to get an internship with General Electric and NASA. If we can do it, without all these resources, the kids here can definitely do it.”

Asked if the Valley can attract a Texas Instruments-type company if it produces more and more STEM-qualified students, Chapa said: “I hope so. This was one of the hardest things for me. I got offers in Chicago and California. I did not want to leave Texas. Dallas is closer to home, still about eight hours. I would have loved to have stayed here, closer to my family. Being able to help the RGV grow, that is what I want to do. I do have plans to come back and help the students, and spread more awareness about STEM.”

Asked for a wrap-up remark about her day judging robots produced by Valley students, Chapa said:

“You might not think you want to engineer, but if you go on a course like this you might fall in love with it. I did not know about engineering and I fell in love with it. It is something very neat to be a part of.”

Regalado’s Perspective

Mari Regalado, anchor of the Rio Grande Guardian’s Editor’s Pick livestream shows on Facebook, participated in Saturday’s meet as a judge.

“I had the best time. This STEM project is amazing. The children, aged 12 to 17, were very excited and very talented. We have the best students in the Valley. We have tremendous children that are very intelligent. They explained how they made their robots, why they put tires and grips on them, why they sandpaper on the arms to help grip the boxes the robots had to pick up,” Regalado said.

“I really liked the fact that they worked as a team. I would ask them, are you building a team to be followers and they would say, no, mam, we are building a team to be leaders. I said, my God, congratulations, children.”

The one disconcerting thing Regalado heard was the cry for more funding by the students.

“I loved being a judge but the one thing that concerned me was when I asked the children where they got their money to develop their team, to buy their uniforms, to drive back and forth after school. They all told me the same thing, that they are having a hard time,” Regalado said.

“Not every parent can pick up their child at 5 or 6 o’clock. They need monies to buy their uniform, to buy gas, to buy food. I want to get the word out that these students need support.”

Regalado said she enjoyed being a judge so much she will be at FIRST RGV’s next meet.

“I will be there next Saturday, in Pharr. They are having a huge event. FIRST RGV will have 64 teams there and I want to volunteer. I am very excited and very honored.”

Regalado said she wants to book Jason Arms or Milly Hernandez for a one-hour livestream.

“I would be honored if Jason Arms would accept that livestream, or his colleague, Milly Hernandez. The Valley needs to know what impressive children we have. FIRST RGV is doing a tremendous job.”

Mari Regalado, a Rio Grande Guardian anchor, and Jason Arms, president of FIRST RGV.