Middle School Challenge opens students' eyes and minds to new ideas, opportunities
Posted: 10/08/2013
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As he stood in front of the "Mars Rover Landing" Xbox simulation game, Isaiah Trevino's arms became thrusters as he moved the craft through what Mars mission engineers call the seven minutes of terror: bringing it to a landing safely and on target.

Cristian Muños, an eighth grade student at San Isidro Middle School, learned about the scientific principles behind thermometers at HESTEC's Middle School Challenge Oct. 8.
"You had to use your arms to stop it or keep it going," said the eighth grade student from La Villa Middle School, who was enjoying all the hands-on activities available in the NASA & Space X venue during Student Leadership Day Oct. 8 at The University of Texas-Pan American's 12th Annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Conference.

Trevino, who also took part in the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Science Camp held at UTPA this summer, said the summer camp and events like HESTEC are getting him "super interested" in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

"For me it's knowing that there are more things out there that you can find out .. . like finding out a new compound or new kinds of elements that somewhere may be out there. I want to go into a science field, maybe biology or another area of science," he said.

His science teacher Joanna Acosta (BS '10), said the goal of her school's first trip to the Middle School Challenge was to promote STEM career opportunities to their students and challenge them at a higher level.

"The kids love this stuff. It's all hands-on and something that they really need to open their eyes. This is a perfect age to start introducing them to these different fields because this is when they are very curious. Their minds are like sponges," said Acosta, who attended HESTEC years ago herself as a member of the first year cohort of GEAR UP students from La Villa High School.

"It sparked my interest," she said. Nearly 4,000 middle school students, from private and public schools throughout the South Texas region, are scheduled to participate in the half-day Middle School Challenge Oct. 8-11 with the intent of inspiring them to attend college and pursuing STEM careers.

Students also got to visit UTPA's newest STEM-related exhibit in its Visitor's Center, Robot Zoo, the H-E-B Planetarium and the Center of Excellence in STEM Education. At the U.S. Army and Navy exhibits, they learned about the many travel, professional development and career opportunities available in the military and the campus' Army ROTC program and were encouraged to concentrate on their studies and pursue higher education upon graduation. Presentations were also given by the UTPA Office for Sustainability and Raytheon, which brought their MathMovesU program that encourages students in reaching their math potential and shows them the many uses of math in everyday life.

Three Rio Grande Valley middle school students (left to right)- Matthew Wentword, Javier Portillo and Laura Cavazos - joined UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen to enjoy one of the displays in the Visitors Center exhibit "Robot Zoo" during the first day of HESTEC's Middle School Challenge.
In the STEM Funland area, manned by UTPA undergraduate and graduate students in the Colleges of Science and Mathematics and Engineering and Computer Science, the middle schoolers experienced a stimulating array of activities and hands-on tools to learn about topics such as electrostatic energy, geology, wave formation and Newton's laws of motion, to name a few.

Students armed with beach balls threw them in unison against a giant one in an activity illustrating force while other students pedaled a bicycle that generated the energy to light a LED sign outlining the name of the student organization that assisted in the construction of the exhibit - the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (MAES).

John Paul Cantu, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and MAES vice-president, said he wants young people to know that engineering is very hands-on and involved in everything they do.

"We want them to get more involved in the STEM fields. There are a lot of young people who don't know about STEM. This event opens them up to ideas and what they have to look forward to," he said.

After she pedaled the MAES bike, Maria Salas, a seventh-grade student at Kennedy Middle School in the PSJA school district, said she is already preparing to go to college by enrolling in a program that will prepare her to take the ACT and SAT this year.

In her first visit to HESTEC, she described it as "amazing."

"It opens up kids' eyes to a lot of fields of science. It's not just all textbooks and charts. It's actually fun and has a lot of hands-on things to do," Salas said.