The Roma Middle School robotics team learned a little lesson in faith during the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Robotics Day at The University of Texas-Pan American's Fieldhouse Thursday, Sept. 29.
The team and their Parrot AR. Drone quadricopter "Big Red" won the Robotics Competition after it successfully navigated its flying robot through a Hula Hoop by relying solely on their iPad screen controlling the device.
"Our hard work paid off," said Eduardo Garza, the team's pilot and a seventh grade student at Roma Middle.
The six-member team said they were the most worried during the final round when they were required to navigate their drones through the obstacle course "blind," when crew members blocked their view of the course with a curtain.
"There was a lot of pressure, we were really worried," said Andy Silva, a seventh grade student at Roma Middle who served as a navigator outside the course for Garza.
Roma was one of 50 teams of seventh grade students from middle schools all over the Rio Grande Valley that competed in the annual event, hosted this year by Raytheon and co-sponsored by Time Warner Cable, AEP and AT&T.
Each team had to direct the flying drones through a course with six obstacles in two minutes. Obstacles included maneuvering the plastic and foam quadricopters through Hula Hoops, knocking a red ball off a pole and going through a tunnel that had foam tubes and boxes blocking its path.
Teams guided their drones through two rounds. Judges took the higher score of the two rounds to advance the top three groups to the final round: Roma, Cummings Middle School in Brownsville and A.P. Solis Middle School in Donna. Roma had a commanding lead over the remaining 49 teams in the first of two rounds with 300 points, but during the second round several schools started gaining up on them. Cummings scored 320 points in the second round, advancing to first place.
"We lost hope," Roma team member Cristobal Barrera said.
But when Cummings' drone wasn't able to fly over the curtain to the obstacle course in the final round and A.P. Solis' drone crashed during its first obstacle attempt, Roma regained its lead.
The Roma team members said they learned a lesson more valuable than the iPads they each won.
"Never give up," Silva said.
Many of the teams said they practiced daily, sometimes for a few hours each day, to learn how to program and control the drones. The schools were given two weeks to learn how to use the remote control aircrafts.
Even with all the practice, navigating the machines through the course at the Fieldhouse was tricky.
"It was hard because you're in a certain spot, and if you want to navigate it to go in a zigzag it's really hard," said Jaime Castillo, a seventh grade student at LBJ Middle School in Pharr. "So we need the assistance of our walk-along, which is my friend John (Olivarez) here; he really helped me a lot in the zigzag. I've got to give him credit too."
LBJ's drone, named "Dark Knight," hit the ground after trying to knock off a ball in the first round, but quickly rose to continue the course.
"The thing that really threw me off was the ball because I hit the pole and the ball went into my propeller and made it fall," Castillo said. "But good thing that they gave us the 10-second take off and I got back off."
Before the competition began, participants were welcomed by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen who urged them to complete high school, go to college and consider STEM fields.
"You will earn 26 percent more every year than someone else. Get your science down, get your math down," he said. He told them they had the support of their teachers, counselors and UT Pan American.
"You are the future of America, you are the future of Texas, you are the future of the Valley," Nelsen said. "Dream big because in the Valley we do everything big."
Morning keynote speaker John Gary Herrera, vice president, Communications Texas, Time Warner Cable, showed a video about Connect a Million Minds,Time Warner Cable's five year initiative to address America's declining proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The campaign includes PSAs, grant opportunities, and an online resource that provides information on science and technical learning opportunities.
Herrera's message: Geeks shall inherit the earth.
"For a long time geeks and nerds had a negative connotation with what they did but ... they are going to be in the position of power, position of knowledge and position of having a job ... and will probably be the bosses and executives in the future," he said. "The main message we have today is that the jobs in the future will all involve science, technology, engineering and math. Prepare yourself and be proud to be a geek."
He asked how many students had heard of LeBron James (NBA's Miami Heat basketball player), which got a response of many hands in the air, and how many had heard of Dean Kamen, which few knew. Kamen is one of America's most productive inventors, who created the Segway and is working on ways to create new human limbs and ways to bring clean water to areas that don't have it, Herrera said.
"Our goal is make rock stars out of the Dean Kamen's of the world," he said. "He's a geek and proud of it."
During the competition, Time Warner Cable, one of the day's HESTEC sponsors, also offered a number of curriculum demonstration booths showing how technology works in their business that could be used in classrooms. Students and teachers could see what their name looks like in binary code and learn about encryption; use tools to learn about the difference in 2G, 3G and 4G speeds; and participate in a twister game to learn more about wireless engineering, among other activities.
While the students took a break for lunch, UTPA alumnus Mauricio Salinas, principal engineer for Raytheon, told the children about the different projects the company has worked on for the U.S. Air Force and said that each project requires much team work from engineers and other employees to complete.
"So the fact that you're getting together in teams and coordinating with each other to do something is really valuable practice for the real world," Salinas said.
Staff Sargent Rene Ochoa, a Harlingen native who is now a cryptologic intelligence operative with the Air Force, served as a main judge at the competition and also spoke to the students during Robotics Day.
Ochoa said he typically works on his job with very smart people who are military intelligence experts but he was impressed with the abilities exhibited by the middle school competitors.
"I met some real geniuses today," he said, noting the speed in which they manipulated the technology. "We probably have the smartest middle-schoolers in the Valley right now right here."
He said his career, which involves handling classified information, started in the Valley with great teachers and mentors who pushed him to take on challenges, like AP Physics while in high school. Although he entered the Air Force instead of college, he has since earned two degrees in foreign languages and international security operations and trained as a cryptologic linguist in Russian and Arabic.
Ochoa urged the students to take on the challenges of STEM by taking tough classes like physics, trigonometry, calculus, algebra, geometry and other more difficult courses.
"It's the decisions that you are making now that are going to have those profound effects on you once you are actually out of school and enter the professional workforce," he said. "There is no other option than college or the Air Force if you want to make yourself competitive in life."
HESTEC continues Friday, Sept. 30 with the first U.S. Navy SeaPerch Challenge from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. at the UTPA natatorium where teams from 11 high schools from San Isidro to Brownsville will compete in navigating robots through a series of plastic rings under water.
Also on Friday will be the annual Career Expo, where more than 50 vendors are expected to set up shop at the UTPA Fieldhouse from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. to guide job seekers in finding work and internship opportunities.
For more information visit www.hestec.org.