BY Marifer Quevedo
In this day and age where technology has transformed and revolutionized human interaction, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) approach to education is now more critical than ever. It is with this philosophy in mind that the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District has implemented a district-wide Robotics program across all elementary, middle, and high school campuses.
“It is an exciting time for our district as we take robotics full-scale with the HCISD Robotics initiative thereby ensuring widespread accessibility of STEM-related activities for our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Art Cavazos. “Robotics are an excellent way to engage our students in authentic learning experiences that will inspire them to pursue careers in STEM and show them what is possible when they work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.”
Robotics club sponsors across the district have met to ensure vertical alignment across all levels and to cultivate a FIRST program that seamlessly flows from introduction to mastery of concepts and skills. Paul Tenison, an engineering teacher at Harlingen High School, is enthusiastic about younger students strengthening programming and code-writing skills, allowing him and his team more time to fine-tune their robots, rather than spending time on learning coding fundamentals.
The University Interscholastic League (UIL) Robotics pilot program began during the 2015-2016 school year, prompting the district initiative to extend the already growing Robotics program.
“Adding Robotics to UIL has made funding available to promote and build robotics teams at every HCISD campus,” said Tenison. “Starting programming and coding for robotics at the elementary school level will provide a great foundation for the development of a STEM pathway to lead Harlingen students and the community to a level of technical ability greater than anywhere in the Valley.”
In the past 16 years, students from the HHS Engineering and Tech clubs have qualified and competed at two state and four national competitions in various robotic events. Teams work two hours after school, five days a week, Monday through Friday and some Saturdays. Out of 33 HHS Engineering Club members, 10 students will be screened and selected to partake in UIL robotic competitions, where they will implement design processes used by engineers to solve problems.
Students use drafting, CAD skills, 3D modeling, and 3D printing technologies, and they must adhere to engineering safety and documentation procedures. Teams are responsible for the research, design, assembly, troubleshooting, and operation of different types of robots including underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROV), autonomous robots, and rockets with sensors and recovery systems.
The high school robotics teams have previously collaborated with elementary schools through mentoring and motivational events created to promote robotics with the young students, but now the aspiring learners are experiencing first-hand the application of critical skills to real-world scenarios.
Lamar Elementary Library Media Specialist Diana Alfaro accounts public speaking as a major challenge at the elementary level. The robotics program addresses this challenge and promotes the 4Cs of the 21st century—Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.
“Robotics is not just about robots,” said Alfaro. “Team members must also become comfortable speaking in front of an audience. Once our team creates their model, they will need to present it to classmates, parents, and eventually to unfamiliar audiences and judges. We work with the team and help them build their confidence and presentation skills, so they will be able to deliver an awesome presentation. We are opening the door to the world of STEM-related activities. This knowledge will help our students discover how science and technology impact our world. Having exposure to these skills will give them a wider range of opportunities in their futures.”
Second- and third-grade students are challenged to use curiosity, teamwork, exploratory research, and collaboration to solve a real-world scientific problem and express the solution using a model created with LEGO bricks. The model must include at least one simple machine and have moving parts.
“HCISD embracing the FIRST philosophy and implementing this program throughout the district means that our HCISD students will have unparalleled access to skills and knowledge starting in kindergarten that truly build upon themselves all the way through high school,” said Caitlin Acosta, Vela Middle School science teacher and Robotics Club sponsor. “A lot of students can get involved in clubs, sports, music, or arts, but none of those extracurricular activities are supported from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents have to look into private options for younger students and only in middle and high school does training for school programs become cohesive. Having FIRST robotics on every campus in our district guarantees student access to training and skill development over the course of their entire educational career.”
The VMS Robotics Club fosters problem-solving strategies, computer programming skills, and critical thinking tactics as students in their competitive team design the construction of an EV3 Mindstorms robot and program it to perform a variety of missions. As part of FIRST LEGO League, students work for two to three hours a week learning the basics of programming while cultivating the FIRST core values.
HCISD is now the only district in the Valley to offer a full-scale robotics program at every campus.