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Rio Hondo HS destroys the competition at HESTEC Robotics Day
Posted: 10/10/2013
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Having his team's robot knocked out of the competition circle twice, Julio Jimenez felt faint.

Rio Hondo High School (rear center) won first place in the 2013 HESTEC Robotics Day competition. Also pictured left to right are third place winners Valley View High School, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen; video commercial winners Lyford Middle School; Professor of Military Science Lt. Col. Walter Llamas, UTPA U.S. Army ROTC; and second place winners Progreso High School.
In round three, however, the Rio Hondo High School freshman and his team's robot, "The Destroyer," rebounded and knocked Progreso High School's robot, "Optimus Exterminator" off the circle the following three rounds to claim victory in the Robotics Day competition Oct. 10 at The University of Texas-Pan American.

He and fellow teammates were still processing the fact they won as they stood on the championship platform in the Fieldhouse.

"I feel lightheaded right now," Jimenez said.

Now in its 12th year, UTPA's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) conference aims to inspire children to pursue careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The Robotics Day competition had 60 teams of middle and high school students vie for prizes that included a laptop, a Nook and a Texas Instruments Nspire calculator, as well as a trophy. The U.S. Army sponsored the event.

The teams -- comprising 30 high schools and 30 middle schools throughout South Texas -- created robots using the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 with which they competed in several rounds of a sumo-style battle where they had to knock out their opponents from a circle platform. Students also developed a commercial promoting their products. UTPA faculty members and graduate students judged the commercials and those scores were calculated into their final scores. Lyford Middle School won the best commercial award.

The Rio Hondo team members said they didn't know what to expect, since it was their first time competing, but the experience has been "awesome."

"It feels incredible, I'm still shaking over it," said Kevin Krafka, a junior at Rio Hondo and the team's mentor.

Ninth grade students Eddy Salinas (left), IDEA College Prep, and Ezek Zamorano, Economedes High School, prepare to have their teams' robots battle during HESTEC's Robotics Day competition Oct. 10.
Krafka said the team went through three different designs and decided to put the weight on the front end of their robot so nothing could get under it and pick it up.

Their coach, physics teacher Christopher Gonzales (BS '09, biology), however, said he never doubted his students' ability.

"I knew from the beginning they were going to make it to the top," Gonzales said. "I believe my students are the best."

Beyond the title of 2013 HESTEC Robotics Competition Champions, he said his team has gained critical thinking and analytical skills from taking things apart and putting things together.

"They problem solve on anything that has gone wrong," Gonzales said. "It really takes a high level of thinking to create something out of nothing and fix it." Participating in the event also gives them a new perspective on the future, he said.

"Coming from such a small school - Rio Hondo - this kind of event shows them that it doesn't matter the size of the town they are coming from, that doesn't limit the size of their dream," he said. "They can go as big as they want."

Each member of the Rio Hondo High School team won a laptop. Members of Progeso High School received Nooks for their second- place prize and Valley View High School team members took home the Texas Instruments Nspire calculators for placing third.

The team from Elias Longoria Middle School in the Edinburg CISD was excited to be among the final 16 teams competing after winning every round. When team member Deandra Ramos was asked about her interest in robotics, she responded, "robotics is my life."

IDEA College Preparatory-Alamo freshmen Mayra Sifuentes, left,and Michael Lagunas, right, make some adjustments to their robot, "Dream Crusher," at the 2013 HESTEC Robotics Day competition at UTPA.

"I have been in it since the fifth grade," said Ramos, a seventh-grade student. "I love the rush you feel when you are competing and you win. It's just the best."

The Longoria Middle School coach, Gracie Gomez (BS '04), who teaches technology applications and robotics to seventh- and eighth-grade students, has taught robotics since 2005 but this is the first time her team has competed its robot in a sumo-type battle. She said her students spent many hours preparing and learned a lot from their participation on the team and in the competition.

"They start learning the engineering, a lot of math and technology... and it's fun," she said. "It shows them something they can do when they grow up, go to college, maybe be an engineer or a scientist. They are very excited about getting involved in robotics."

Gomez said she was impressed with HESTEC and how organized the competition is.

"Hats off to Joel Ruiz (UTPA technology event specialist) for putting this together," she said.

Early in the day's competition, Erick Flores, a freshman from Rio Grande City High School, was hoping his team would do as well as last year's winner, Rio Grande City Middle School. Three members of that winning team were now on the high school team. Flores said he felt confident but was not "cocky."

"I couldn't wish for a better team," he said of his classmates who worked diligently on the robot dubbed "Rattler Mach 7" for the last three weeks.

Through the competition, he said the team learned new ideas, how to program and about engineering. But they also learned more than that, he said.

"We learned teamwork and sportsmanship," Flores said. "We like to agree on things and if we don't, we decide together."

HESTEC Continues Friday, Oct. 11 with the U.S. Navy SeaPerch Challenge at the UTPA natatorium and the Fall Career Expo at the Fieldhouse. At the SeaPerch Challenge, high school teams from across South Texas will navigate robots they built and programmed through obstacle courses underwater. The Fall Career Expo will include about 50 companies and organizations that will provide information about internship and employment opportunities they offer. For more information, visit www.utpa.edu/hestec.