BY CHERYL TAYLOR
BROWNSVILLE — The five-person robotics club team from San Isidro High School was the first to arrive at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley HESTEC 2016 Robotics Day competition, held this year for the first time in Brownsville, at the TSC Jacob Brown Memorial Convention Center.
“We had to leave at 5:30 this morning,” said team coach William Bardwell, who teaches biology, chemistry and physics at SIHS. “But it was really nice that H-E-B had breakfast ready for us when we arrived.”
SIHS sophomore Leslie Montoya said the team had been “building, testing, rebuilding and testing” their robot for the past three weeks.
Sixty-five energy-filled middle and high school teams from throughout the Rio Grande Valley competed in Robotics Day, each team having built its robot to weight and size specifications using Lego Mindstorms EV3.
The Mission High School team included some Robotics Day old-timers, including Alan Castellano, attending his third Robotics Day, and Robert Ramirez, having two under his belt.
“We did well on the pull test, and we did okay on the tracer,” said Castellano at about 10:30 a.m. “And we feel confident we’ll do well on the next two tests – they are on strength and speed.”
The two volunteer emcees for the day were Tim Smith, KRGV Channel 5 meteorologist, and Joseph Martinez, reporter for Telemundo Channel 40.
“This is my first time to participate in HESTEC and Robotics Day, since I have lived in the Valley for only 10 months,” Martinez said. “I am so amazed at how creative these students are. They are learning things in middle school, like computer programming, that my school didn’t even offer. I am so impressed with all of them.”
Tim Smith, a long-time HESTEC volunteer, echoed Martinez’s sentiments.
“These middle school and high school students are so smart, and I like to see the students working as teams, solving problems, analyzing and creating these robots from the ground up and then programming them,” Smith said.
During lunch, the young engineers paid rapt attention to Heriberto Reynoso, the CEO and founder of Reybotics, the premier robotics manufacturing center of South Texas and a 2011 UT Brownsville graduate. Reynoso, a mentor to many students, makes presentations to schools across the Rio Grande Valley, speaking on the importance of robotics.
“I started building robots on my family’s kitchen table, and then I moved into the garage, and now I am in a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Mercedes,” he said.
Reynoso shared how he kept advancing, learning about robotics by obtaining internships with NASA at various locations, including the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. He also told students that NASA paid for half of his tuition and fees at UT Brownsville.
“I’ve had circuit boards catch fire right in front of my eyes, but that’s OK, because failure is not always a bad thing,” Reynosa said.
Among the two big teams of volunteers throughout the day were members of UTRGV Army ROTC, which helped with set up and break down, and with timing and evaluation throughout the competition.
The U.S. Navy, a long-time HESTEC sponsor, was out in full force. Uniformed personnel were on hand to talk to students and answer questions. Outside the auditorium, the Navy reps set up their STEM virtual reality tour for students to check out while their team wasn’t competing or during the break after lunch.
Petty Officer First Class Ivan Aguilar, a Navy recruiter stationed in Edinburg, said the program is designed as a Special Warfare Combat Crew (SWCC) mission. SWCCs are the crews that extract Navy SEALs from a mission.
Hailelyray Garcia, a freshman at La Villa Early College High School, said the program was a bit scary at first.
“But it was fun. You are standing on a boat and have to follow directions, moving the boat in the water, sort of like in a video game,” Garcia said. “I’m glad I got to try it. I’ve never used virtual reality glasses before.”
Naval Commander Jeff Reynolds, executive officer at the Navy Recruiting District in San Antonio, said HESTEC is a national-level event.
“The Navy is focused on STEM and diversity, and this is an important event for the Navy to sponsor and for us have a presence,” Reynolds said. “I am so impressed with the scope of knowledge and the interest and excitement I see in these young students.”