MCALLEN, RGV – As the theme of FIRST’s 2018-19 season of robotics competitions is Space – to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing – former astronaut Michael Fossum really wanted to attend FIRST RGV’s kickoff event in McAllen.

However, the Rio Grande Valley native, who is now chief operating officer for Texas A&M, had a prior commitment. So, instead, he has produced a video to promote the event. Col. Fossum is also producing a longer video to air at the kickoff.

The kickoff takes place at Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen on Sept. 8.

“Help us ignite the passion for continued space exploration by a new generation of explorers,” Fossum said in the promotional video. 

Fossum, who has a middle school in McAllen named in his honor, spent more than 193 days in space during his NASA career. 

All four of FIRST’s progressional programs for 2018-19 have been aligned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon.

“We are excited that astronaut Fossum is helping promote this coming season of competitions,” said Jason Arms, president of FIRST RGV. “Astronaut Fossum has been an inspiration to Valley students for years. He is a great illustration of what can be achieved when you pursue a career in STEM.”

Other guest speakers at the kickoff include Julian Alvarez, commissioner of labor for the Texas Workforce Commission, and Mario Lozoya, executive director of Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation (GBIC). Like Fossum, Alvarez and Lozoya are Valley natives. The predecessor to GBIC in Brownsville, Brownsville EDC, brought SpaceX to the Valley.

School superintendents slated to attend the kickoff include J.A. Gonzalez of McAllen ISD, Art Cavazos of Harlingen CISD, and Narciso Garcia of Vanguard Academy. Various elected officials from the Valley are also expected to attend.

FIRST is a non-profit founded in 1994 by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire students in K-thru-12 to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math. More than 500,000 students around the world participate in its robotics competition. 

FIRST awards more than $80 million dollars a year in college scholarships to students that participate on a team for at least one season.

FIRST has four competitions – First LEGO League Jr., for grades K thru 3; First LEGO League, for grades 4 thru 8; FIRST Tech Challenge for grades 7 thru 12; and FIRST Robotics Competition, for grades 9 thru 12.


FIRST RGV was founded in 2015 and has already served more than 19,000 students. It has quickly become the fastest growing STEM program for the K-12 community encompassing more than 24 school districts from across the Valley. 

“This year, we are projected to serve more than 5,000 students. We have teams from Roma to Brownsville,” Arms said.

“FIRST is big in Texas and the Valley. Texas represents approximately ten percent of all FIRST robotics teams in the world. The Rio Grande Valley had four teams representing it in the FIRST World Championship last year.”

The FIRST Lego League (FLL) program is for grades 4-8 and requires students to research a program, prepare a project and to present their results in a judged competition while using their LEGO robot to complete mission challenges on a standard playing field against other teams in a cooperation event with teams from all over the Rio Grande Valley. 

“We have 120 teams out of 144 registered for this season,” Arms said.

The FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) program is for grades 7-12 and requires students to compile an engineering notebook on the design of their robot and the progress successes/failures of its robotics team using a metal based robot which must compete in four cooperation style events from Sept to April.

“We have more than 150 teams registered already for FTC with a cap of 160 for the 2018-2019 season,” Arms said.

The season kickoff starts with a FIRST Lego League competition at 9am, with the FIRST Tech Challenge starting an hour later at 10am.

There will be classes on programming, social media marketing, team sustainability and more.

“All students are expected to show gracious professionalism at all times,” Arms said.

FIRST is sanctioned by UIL as a competitive robotics competition; for which McAllen ISD won GOLD and Mission ISD won SILVER status from UIL this past year.

To learn more, visit The kickoff event is free and open to the public.