Christmas came early for a number of ninth graders from Progresso, Harlingen and Los Fresnos - who took top honors at a solar car competition held during Hispanic Engineering Science and Technology Week this year at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Dozens of teams from across the Rio Grande Valley tested their solar cars and their engineering skills during races held on the UTPA campus in October.
The three-person team from Progreso High School, the smallest school district participating, beat out 40 other school districts to win first place.
"You're getting a Dell, dude," said Roland S. Arriola, vice president for External Affairs at UTPA, as he presented the top prize. "Seriously, we wanted to provide the winners with gifts that would assist them in continuing their interest in science and technology."
Denise Cabrera, Rene Garza and Joseph Oviedo were each presented with a top-of-the-line Dell laptop computer, complete with video viewing and CD burning capability. All three say theirs was a Cinderella story.
"No one thought we could win. I myself had some doubts but I proved myself wrong, we proved everyone wrong," said an excited Garza.
A team from Harlingen High School - Louis Perez III, Michael Longoria, Jesse Vela - won second place in the overall competition. They each received Texas Instruments calculators.
In the Design category, Vanessa Olvera, Cesar Silva Jr., Monica Gaona, of W.A. Todd Ninth Grade Campus won first place and received palm pilots.
Harlingen South High School - Matt Gonzalez, John Garza, Ricky Robledo - took second place in design and walked away with TI calculators.
The Los Fresnos High School team - John Farst, Erica Lunsford and Ryan Villarreal - won TI calculators for the fastest solar car in the competition.
Dr. Edwin LeMaster - chair for the UTPA School of Engineering - officiated at the races, applauded their efforts and encouraged them to consider careers in engineering and science.
"I want you to think about the personal reward you get in building something and seeing it perform well," LeMaster said.
All the winners agree building and racing solar cars was both fun and educational. The grand champions from Progreso said they plan to hold on to their title. They're already considering some design changes on next year's solar car.
"More weight on the back and some tension on the front wheels and place the solar panel at an angle. Those are the only secrets we can give away now," Oviedo said. As for a career in engineering, one parent said us it's now become a possibility for her daughter.
"I'm very impressed, we didn't expect this. Hopefully this will inspire her. She wants to be a teacher but who knows, now she's talking about engineering," said Rosa Cabrera, whose daughter was a member of the first place team from Progresso.
And the superintendent of Progresso schools, Dr. Fernando Castillo, said feels HESTEC is important.
"I think the students are highly motivated, but the teachers are motivated and the parents...the community," Castillo said. "The reason we're here is to support the children and to support this fine program."
The U.S. Department of Energy and TRW - an aerospace company that builds satellites - sponsored this year's competition.
Arriola - who came up with the idea for HESTEC in order to educate students and their parents about the career opportunities in science, math and engineering - announced that both companies were pleased with the results, and pledged their financial support for another solar competition during HESTEC 2003.