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Veterans Middle School knocks out competition at HESTEC Robotics Day
By Jennifer Berghom, Gail Fagan and Roxanne Lerma Casares
Posted: 09/27/2012
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Knocking all the required blocks off an obstacle course with more than a minute to spare with its robot "Nano Doctor," the Veterans Middle School team from Rio Grande City secured its place as champion of the 2012 Robotics Day at The University of Texas-Pan American Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) conference.


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The University of Texas-Pan American honored the top three schools that placed in the Robotics Day competition during HESTEC Sept. 27, 2012.

The event was sponsored by Time Warner Cable and AEP Texas.

Though they bested McAllen's Travis Middle School and Peñitas' Dr. Javier Saenz Middle School for the top spot, team members remained humble after the competition on Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Fieldhouse.

"We're winners just for being here," said Gabrielle Peña, an eighth-grade student at Veterans Middle School.

Veterans Memorial won iPads for each team member. Team members from Travis Middle received iPod Touches for placing second and Dr. Javier Saenz Middle team members received Texas Instrument calculators for earning third place.

More than 200 students from 40 middle schools from across the Rio Grande Valley vied for iPads, trophies and other prizes during Robotics Day.

The teams spent weeks designing their robots using the LEGO Mindstorm 2.0 set, creating a corporation name and developing a five-to 30-second commercial that advertises the robot. The programmable robot model system includes a microcomputer brick and intuitive drag-and-drop programming software.


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Austin Johnson (pictured left) and Caleb Alonzo, eighth-grade students at Jose Borrego Middle School at Monte Alto, navigate their robot through one of three obstacle courses during the HESTEC Robotics Day competition at UTPA.

Students competed in three obstacles courses that presented challenges representing chemistry, physics and biology issues. The competition was designed to give students understanding of the fundamentals of engineering and commercialization.

In the first obstacle course, robots had to travel through a winding maze symbolizing the digestive tract of a human, to clean up the “bacteria,” represented by balls. Teams had to secure the ball within the robot to gain points.

In the second course, the student teams had to maneuver their robot through a field of blocks by pushing and flipping obstacles. A single green-faced block surrounded by orange faces then had to be located and inserted through a narrow opening. A color sensor at the end of the opening unlocked the final gate where the student’s robot had to push another aggressive LEGO robot over the edge of the platform.

In the final stage, the robots had to match “atoms” — again represented by colorful balls — to build a “molecule.” Robots were also armed with an atomic shooter to fight stray bacteria symbolized by an aggressive LEGO robot.

Before the competition, Tina Atkins, director of Region One GEAR UP told the middle school students about the importance of seeking a higher education and encouraged them to pursue jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Atkins said the robotics competition was already a step in the right direction.

“You are all winners already just because you are here,” Atkins said.

Gavino Ramos, senior director of communications for Time Warner Cable, delivered the morning keynote address. He talked to students about their futures and the exciting opportunities that await them in STEM-related careers.

“At Time Warner Cable we need engineers, we need mathematicians and so we have to help encourage that at the beginning, rather than at the end,” Ramos said.


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Emilio Alvarado (pictured left) and Jonathan Jimenenz, eighth-grade students at Central Middle School in Weslaco, work on their robot during the HESTEC Robotics Day competition at UTPA.

The Veterans Memorial team said they were pleased with how well they did, considering they placed 10th in the competition last year. They credited their teamwork for their success.

Their teacher, Juan Andrade Jr. (BS '99, manufacturing engineering), said his students practiced and planned a lot in the two weeks leading up to the competition. He agreed that his students worked better as a team this year than the year before.

"I chose them because almost all of them are interested in the engineering field," Andrade said.

Andrade, who left a 10-year career in manufacturing engineering about four years ago to teach, said it has been a rewarding experience training future engineers.

"I can already see at this level that they can compete with anyone else in the world," he said.

Toward the end of the day, Joel Guerrero's team from Dora Sauceda Middle School in Donna dropped just out of the top three places. After coming in fourth at last year's competition, he was hoping they would do better this year.

The eighth grader described the competition as fun but is concerned that more students aren't interested in science and math.


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Middle school students maneuver their robot through a chemistry-themed obstacle course during the HESTEC Robotics Day competition at UTPA.

"This country, this world, this economy needs more technology. We are being surpassed by China, Japan and Asian countries," said Guerrero, who has a desire to be a physicist.

Guerrero's parents, Monica and Hector are both athletic coaches at his school where their son also participates in sports. They were amazed by the competition after viewing it for the first time.

"We are finding that robotics can be just as exciting as sports," Monica said. "It has really helped my son open his eyes up to what he can do in the future."

Taylor Helmcamp and Emma Salazar, both eighth-grade students at Travis Middle School, said they bonded as the only two female members working on their school's robotics team. Both have an interest in becoming nuclear physicists with the U.S. Navy.

Salazar said she was glad her teacher suggested she participate in the competition and was excited by placing second in the school's first year competing in the event.

"My science teacher asked me if I could do robotics and I was up for it because I like to try things that are new," Salazar said. " Being involved in this shows we can do it. If we can persevere in this, we can persevere in anything."

HESTEC continues Friday, Sept. 28 with a Career Expo, featuring more than 40 companies looking for top graduates to employ and the U.S. Navy SeaPerch Competition that will have teams from more than 20 high schools throughout South Texas battle to see whose underwater robots can complete the most obstacles in the shortest amount of time.

For more information on HESTEC, visit www.hestec.org. See more of Robotics Day in this photo gallery.