BY NEIRODRIGUEZ RANGEL
EDINBURG — This summer, 1,250 students from elementary to high school built LEGO robots, magnetic levitating trains and bumper cars to learn the important roles that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields play in creating safe transportation.
UTRGV held its third University Transportation Center for Railway Safety’s (UTCRS) Railway Safety Summer Camps from June 6-July 8 on the Edinburg Campus.
The camps come to a close Monday with a daylong competition and a closing awards ceremony at 6 p.m. at the UTRGV Performing Arts Complex A on the Edinburg Campus. U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, Texas District 15, will deliver remarks during the ceremony.
The five-week camps are the largest STEM-related camps ever held at UTRGV and the largest transportation-related summer camps in the nation. Each week, a different group of students from area districts participate, with an average of 250 students attending each week.
Aaron Cantu, 12, a student at Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, said he enjoyed the camp and learned a lot at the same time.
“We’ve been working with robotics and engineering and they have taught us a lot about railway safety transportation,” he said.
The students were challenged every day with a variety of activities, like building and programming a robot functional for railway safety, and creating sensor-programmed bumper cars.
“We had to build a robot as a team,” Cantu said, “and we also built bumper cars with sensors of touch, so that when they bump into something, they turn around and go in the other direction.”
The summer camps have been available to Valley children since 2014 and are made possible with the help of sponsorships from the U.S. Department of Transportation and University Transportation Center for Railway Safety consortium institutions lead by UTRGV in cooperation with Texas A&M University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
A major goal of the UTCRS is to encourage students from groups that are underrepresented in transportation to consider careers in transportation-related fields.
UTCRS director Dr. Constantine Tarawneh, mechanical engineering professor, Bentsen Fellow at UTRGV and associate dean for Research, stresses the importance of encouraging students to pursue STEM careers and the need for early guidance and preparation.
“We reach out to students as young as elementary level because we want to make sure to start getting them interested in the idea of STEM careers early on,” he said. “So, if one of them wants to become an engineer, we can guide them in the right direction to become part of that industry.”
UTCRS faculty and staff, aided by teachers participating in the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program, developed K-12 curricula to introduce students to STEM concepts through transportation engineering applications, with an emphasis on railway safety, for the summer camps.
Brenda Cantu, a first-grade teacher at La Joya ISD and first-time instructor from the RET for the UTCRS summer camps, said it is imperative that students who come to the summer camps have fun while they’re learning. They get a head start by learning math, science and engineering via engaging activities that encourage them to immerse themselves in STEM careers.
“What we do here is for the kids and with the kids,” Cantu said. “We provide them with a lot of STEM opportunities. They get to learn through fun, hands-on activities.”
Citlalli Garcia, UTCRS senior program coordinator, said UTCRS collaborations with local school districts and schools have been extremely successful in addressing the students’ learning needs and challenges.
“UTCRS believes that, to create the best camp experience possible, it is necessary to address the specific needs of the school districts,” she said. “Our work with more than 26 school districts and other private schools has been essential for improving and enhancing the camp’s curriculum.”
UTCRS developed this particular curricula utilizing LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT 2.0, LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3, and MagLev educational toolkits, which expose students to STEM and transportation technologies and teach programming, engineering design, teamwork, logic, problem solving, and real-life applications in a challenging and exciting way.
Jaylon Rosillo, 10, a student at Wilbur E. Lucas Elementary in Hidalgo, said the teamwork during the summer camps was a great experience.
“We learned so much,” Rosillo said. “I’d like to invite my other friends, so they can learn how to build all these things.”