Mission High School junior Robert Ramirez stretches his tape measure through the small village of LEGO buildings as an elementary student marks the distance at Alton Memorial Junior High School last week.
They tape the corresponding information onto a board where a young pilot, using trial and error, programs directions into a laptop that moves a wheeled robot along a track.
It’s not going well, at first.
Multiple engines inside the bot are getting confused with the corresponding commands. But after each error, Ramirez asks the students a few questions and shortly after, the younger programmers gets their bot closer and closer to the blue guideline below.
Ramirez, a captain for the more-advanced FIRST Robotics Competition team, is one of the program mentors for the elementary-level FIRST LEGO League Jr. team.
“It scaffolds from K-12,” science teacher and advisor Sammy Rivera said about the teams, which feed information to each other. “So as the students start learning and experiencing one level and move on to the next, those students give back.”
Rivera said he’s more of a facilitator than a coach.
“We just guide them, and we lay out our directives … and the kids kind of self-implement their process,” he said. “And it’s neat once you take a step back and watch the whole thing.”
The system has worked well for their program. Both Mission FLL and FLL Jr. teams will be joining FTC teams in Sharyland High and Early College High School in Harlingen to represent the Rio Grande Valley at the world championships in Houston this week.
Rivera said their program began in 2012 as a migrant-student initiative. They started competing at the University of Texas-Pan American’s HESTEC in 2013. The next year, they decided to offer robotics to gifted and talented students.
During the 2013-14 school year, they participated in the National Science Bowl, won the regional contest and advanced to Washington, D.C. He said those initial two years provided students and sponsors the confidence to enter ‘bigger and better competitions,” he said. “So we jumped into FIRST.”
Math teacher and advisor Robert Granados said education wasn’t focused on allowing students to experiment with various career paths when he was in school.
“Back then, it was more like you explore after you graduate and ask questions afterwards,” he said. But in this program, students can not only explore different aspects of STEM, but other aspects required in the contest, like marketing, promotion and design.
And perhaps most importantly, sponsors and students talk about the importance of communication skills, which are required throughout the curriculum by way of teamwork and providing and receiving instruction from student mentors within the “peer-to-peer interaction,” as Granados called it.
“One thing that lacks with some students when they graduate is that they’re book smart, but their social skill aren’t really there,” he said. “The good thing with this is that they get to practice this and perfect it as they get older.”
Rivera said they initially went through “growing pains” with recruitment and funding, but districts are now seeing the benefits.
“Now, it’s catching fire,” he said. “Now that people have seen this … over a seven-year course, we’ve started to establish something.
“Now, you see people starting to replicate that.”
One key to their success, he said, is that they’ve “evolved not only vertically but horizontal,” with robotics offered to all levels of K-12 and through collaboration with feeder schools.
He said their goal is to grow the programs districtwide with teams at all 14 elementary schools throughout Mission.
Students in the program speak about their connection with each other not as members of an afterschool club, but like a family — a family with lofty expectations.
“It kind of places a sense of accomplishment on you seeing what the people before you have done,” Abrianna Garcia, 13, said of the success of the program. “And it sets guidelines for what you want to do. It makes you want to achieve higher standards.”
Knowing your teammates will graduate to the next level of robotics creates opportunities for others.
“We have to step up,” said eighth-grader Mia Adame.
Students said learning from their older colleagues is beneficial because of their first-hand experience.
The program “created an open atmosphere where we can create anything we want with the mindset that we have,” said FLL captain Esteban Reyna, 11. “What we do, that type of inspiration, gave us the power to create this.
“We made our robot, and we’re ready to give our inspiration to the little ones.”
This mentality is what they hope to instill, said Granados — to “pass on the torch to someone else and say that there’s more to life than just winning.”
Rivera said he realized his passion for robotics grew as he watched his students grow through the levels and roles of the program.
“Hopefully, the goal is to have them give back and realize how much of robotics played a role in structuring their life for the future,” he said. “The robot brings us together, but we experience so many other things together.
“Some of these students really need that support system. We’re all there for each other.”