Schools get ULA grant for STEM programs

HARLINGEN — The Battlebots are ready to launch!

And they’re getting an extra boost from a grant awarded to Travis Elementary School where their launch pad is located.

The Battlebots, six young second and third graders at Travis, have been meeting regularly to design their first robot. A $2,000 grant from United Launch Alliance is giving them some extra juice to move forward.

“I’m excited,” said Alayna Lopez, 8. She struggled a moment for another word to more adequately explain how she felt. Then, shrugging lightly, she said, “There’s no other way to say that.”

ULA has been offering grants to support the district’s STEM programs for quite some time. A grant was offered to the elementary schools, and the district decided which schools would receive the funding. Travis and Zavala elementary schools made the cut, said Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer. Zavala Elementary also will be getting $2,000.

“It was the depth of their programs, how they would use the funding to promote STEM education,” Noyola said.

Because the Battlebots are in the Junior FLL, this year they are simply learning how to build simple structures, said their coach, Alessandra Perez. FLL stands for FIRST Lego League. FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

FLL Junior is for children ages 6 to 9 years old. FLL is for students up to high school. There are other versions of FLL, such as the FIRST Tech Challenge.

The Junior FLL’s challenge this year is “Waste Wise,” which asks children how the problem of trash, such as paper, discarded batteries and plastic bottles, can be addressed.

As part of their preparation for the challenge, the students are learning the basics of robotics and researching the problem of waste disposal.

“We’re teaching them about simple machines and how they work,” Perez said.

Alayna likes the challenge.

“It’s good because we are focusing on helping the environment,” said Alayna, president of the Battlebots. “Cities use a lot of trash. We’re going to make a trash helper. We haven’t built anything yet.”

She and fellow club member Jeremiah Montemayor, a second grader, are already thinking about how the robotics program can impact their future.

“We’re in the Junior FLL from first to third grade,” said Jeremiah, 8. “From fourth to high school it’s FLL.”

“And it goes up to high school,” Alayna added. “Sometimes you can get scholarships.”

Perez and Diana Garcia are both coaching the team.

Perez said the children will use Legos to construct a model of a city to show what happens when people don’t dispose of trash properly.

At this stage of the game, they aren’t competing. They are gaining experience showing their work.

Those students who become part of the FLL next year will have the chance to build a robot.

So it appears that this year is the launch pad for greater discoveries in the coming years. That pad is being constructed through club activities in which the students are learning about robots and presentation. The following year they’ll begin building bigger and better robots, and from there…who knows?