Young entrepreneurs explore smart-farming at UTRGV’s TMAC camp

BY J. Edward Moreno

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s McAllen Teaching Site was crowded with eager IDEA high school students waiting to showcase their smart-farming robots, whose yield ultimately would determine the fate of their newly founded small businesses.

Students cheered – “Yes!” – as the robots they had built themselves collected simulated crops and piglets.

The university’s Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) this summer hosted its sixth annual summer camp for IDEA high school students. The eight-day camp explores a unique curriculum that merges engineering and robotics with business and entrepreneurship. TMAC hosted two eight-day sessions for the IDEA students.

Throughout the eight days, students learn how to manufacture robots, which they then use to perform tasks on a simulated farm. Depending on the yield, their business must calculate its net worth and present it to investors, along with other aspects of their business plan. After investors propose their bids, students must negotiate to determine which one will work best for the company.

Maria Leonard, a lecturer in the UTRGV Robert C. Vackar College of Business and Entrepreneurship and the faculty adviser for ENACTUS at UTRGV, said the camp encourages students to treat the situation as if it were a real-life company.

“We have them appoint a CEO, a CFO and an engineer, and they have a job fair where they have to negotiate their salaries. Then they start working on the robots,” Leonard said. “They need to compare the money they spent making the robot, along with payroll, to see if they made money or not.”


Elsa Garcia, a rising junior at IDEA Quest in Edinburg, has been attending the camp since she was in thesixth grade.

“When it first started. there were only 14 kids. Now, we are about 100,” Elsa said. “Now that it’s both business and engineering, it’s given us the opportunity to develop teamwork skills, since

Students in the UTRGV Society of Manufacturing Engineers teach the engineering aspects, while students in ENACTUS, a student organization focused on community-based entrepreneurship, teach the business aspects of the project.

Luis Velazquez, 20, a finance and economics senior and president of ENACTUS, said this type of work aligns perfectly with the goal of his organization. Through TMAC, he said, ENACTUS members get the opportunity to educate young students and give them the resources to explore these careers in depth.

“Sometimes the students come in and they’re not really interested in what they’re doing, but by the end you can really see that they are excited with the knowledge they’re gaining,” Velazquez said. “I really think that’s the only way we can do something more – by educating and sparking interest in young students in such a collaborative way.”

Francisco Torres, 24, a manufacturing engineering graduate student and member of SME, said the camp’s curriculum is unique, and ultimately, it prepares students for real-life careers.

“In the beginning, the students are a bit reluctant,” he said. “They’re not really sure what to do. But once we get to the hands-on activities, they begin to see the meaning and how it translates into something they can actually use. Then they get really excited and engaged.”