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PHARR, RGV – Robotics instructor and mentor Juan Carlos Suarez is urging Rio Grande Valley teachers not to turn away any student that wants to join a robotics team.

Interest in robotics among students in the region is booming, Suarez said, so high school teachers need to be creative in finding the funds to create more teams.

“At FIRST RGV, everybody who wants to start a team is welcome to come in. My message to teachers who are lacking support in their schools is, go out and find the support. Do not give up on finding it,” Suarez said.

Juan Carlos Suarez
Juan Carlos Suarez

Suarez is a board member of both FIRST RGV and the FIRST in Texas’ Alamo Region, which covers South Texas. FIRST, which stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is a not-for-profit organization devoted to helping young people discover and develop a passion for the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math.

“For those teachers that do have a program and have too many kids, because the interest is crazy, for those teachers who are overwhelmed with 20 or 30 kids wanting to be on one team, just make more teams. The resources are there. Come talk to us. Don’t let them not be in teams. Don’t cut people out. Make sure you include everybody,” Suarez said.

Suarez made his comments at a practice event held at PSJA ISD’s Southwest High School for robotics teams from across the Valley. He said such practice events are crucial because they give rookie teams – and the Valley has many rookie teams – experience for competition events in San Antonio.

“I would say 90 percent of the teams in the Valley are rookie teams. We want them to feel comfortable in a competition setting. Their stress factor is gone and they can focus not on the newness of it. Most of them are new to the event,” Suarez said.

Suarez said FIRST’s annual programs culminate in an international robotics competition and celebration where teams win recognition, gain self-confidence, develop people and life skills, make new friends, and possibly discover an unforeseen career path. “All of our programs are geared toward inspiring young people to be science and technology leaders,” Suarez said.

Suarez lived in the Valley for ten years and still has business interests in the region. He said he came back from San Antonio to help the Valley produce great robotics teams.

“In San Antonio we have had teams that would go up and compete in region-wide competitions, in statewide competitions and then go on to the world championships. That is what drove me to come down here, to produce teams that can compete in the world championships. That is our dream,” Suarez said.

Suarez said thinking of world championship tournaments for Valley robotics teams is not fanciful.

“The creativity is here. The ingenuity is here. That I have seen. The thirst for robotics has always been here. Parents wanted their kids to do it, but there was no venue. Now we are getting the structure. We are bringing qualifiers down here, opening the competition to a lot more teams. We are finding the resources for the students to have the kits to make the robots and get the funds to travel.”

Jason Arms is information technology director for the City of Pharr. The FIRST Alamo Region approached the City of Pharr to ask if it would host FIRST RGV. Mayor Ambrosio ‘Amos’ Hernandez and the City Commission enthusiastically said “yes” and Arms joined the board of directors of FIRST RGV.

“FIRST RGV aims to boost robotics in the region. With its backing, we now have the ability to score teams in the region, instead of them having to go to San Antonio. We can keep travel costs down. Before, we were leaving money on the table,” Arms said.

Arms echoed Suarez’s comments about the potential of Valley students. “We have amazing talent in the Valley and we need to build on that and keep our kids here. By helping students interested in the STEM disciplines we can build our economy and build our society. Everyone in the U.S. will know that the Rio Grande Valley is a powerhouse in technology, mathematics and engineering.”

Marisela Zepeda, director of advanced academics at PSJA ISD, said she was proud to say that 92 students in the 9th thru 12 grades at PSJA’s Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School are involved in robotics teams.

“We have amazingly talented students. We just need more mentors so we can expose them to what is out there in industry and what is coming to the Rio Grande Valley,” Zepeda said. “Working together as a group the students are learning to solve problems, be resourceful, network with their colleagues, communicate with each other. It is getting you ready for the real world. The students studying robotics are going to be ready for any of the STEM fields. It is amazing to see them work together, to see them build things, and to see them having so much fun.”

Meanwhile, the University Interscholastic League has just announced it will host the first ever UIL robotics pilot program to begin during the 2015-2016 academic school year. There will be two divisions, UIL Robotics: FIRST®Division and UIL Robotics: BEST™ Division.

Dr. Charles Breithaupt, UIL executive director, said Texas is the largest state to implement a Robotics State Championship, with all UIL high schools having access to the UIL robotics pilot program. “There is a clear need to prepare today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow, many of which are STEM related,” Breithaupt said, in a news release. “STEM is a top priority for UIL, and FIRST and BEST have a proven track record of success in preparing students for a future in STEM careers through robotics competition.”

Steve Taylor, Publisher — Rio Grande Guardian