First RGV is a nonprofit group of professionals, mentors and other volunteers from science, technology and engineering careers. Their goal is to help students from all grade levels explore a STEM career while having a fun experience and also helping develop science, engineering and technology skills which inspire innovation, including self-confidence, communication and leadership.

First is a rigorous science and technology through a robotics competition which has shown to create more interest in students for school, a higher enrollment for challenging math or science courses or even attending college. It also helps teams with a number of other opportunities, such as scholarship opportunities.

These opportunities are from grades Kinder all the way through high school level through the following categories:

First Lego League Jr. for Kinder through 3rd grade

First Lego League for 4th grade through 8th grade

First Tech Challenge for 7th through 12th grade

First Robotics Competition for 9th grade through 12th grade

To read more about the categories, how enroll a student or other information, you can visit the First RGV website.

This 2016-2017 academic year for the Rio Grande Valley, various schools attended PSJA Southwest Early College High School on Saturday, February 4th, where students used their robots to compete and tested their skills on the field. Every year the game changes. This year the game “Velocity Vortex” was presented for students ahead of time via a video on the First RGV website which gave students time to design, prepare and test their robots.

McAllen High School’s team Dog Works was one of several teams who attended the competition, and they were also one of the teams who made it to Regionals.

Sponsor Robert Saldaña and co-sponsor, Ruben Cortez, are backing the new team for McAllen High School, which includes 11 members known as Dog Works. The team united in October 2016 after the STE department from McAllen High School decided to expand the idea of robotics in the school, as there are other schools which have various teams per school.

Robert Saldaña obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in computer science at South Texas College and Master’s Degree in Education Technology Leadership at Lamar University with an electronic background. He also works repairing audio equipment for local musicians. He taught elementary school for five years in Harlingen until he began to work for McAllen High School this year teaching high school classes. He currently teaches four manufacturing classes where he gives students a chance to program and build small robots. He also teaches two engineering courses where they work on the small robots at the beginning of the year and then work on bigger projects the rest of the year. After classes are over, he works with the students after school between 5:30 to 6 p.m. every day except Wednesdays with the club (sometimes later as the competition comes closer) as the team is very competitive and dedicated to what they do.

“I love teaching high school. I love teaching this. Period. Not only the club, but all of my classes. Working with elementary kids is rewarding, but when you do something you love all day long, it’s not work.” Robert Saldaña said. “That’s why you want to go to college to get a career on something you love to do.”

The president of the robotics team is currently 16-year-old sophomore Victor Menchaca, who has been involved with robotics for years ever since he was at school in Hawaii. It was at his previous schools where Victor earned prestigious world championships and even attended leadership conventions in Washington, D.C. “He’s very skilled, he knows manufacturing, how to program, mechanics, how to build — he knows of everything which in some cases some of these can take a little while to learn,” Saldaña said. “This is my first year, he came and said, ‘Yeah, I know how to do this,’ and got us that trophy. It’s been a learning process even for me.” Victor is currently looking into the engineering field but is not sure what type he wants to pursue.

Building a robot for a competition is more complex than it sounds, as there are no manuals students follow to build the robots. “It’s all predict and test,” Victor Menchaca said. For students who had little to no knowledge of robotics, Menchaca gave them a basic understanding at the beginning of the year. They also study non-robotic devices found in their everyday life to put into their robotics. “For example, we look at a car transmission for the gears and other multiple parts. We won’t build a car transmission, but we get the idea in order to use a similar method in order to build our Drivetrain,” Menchaca explained. It takes months to build a robot, which can initially run into functional problems. They’re also required to learn two major processes which engineers use, the problem solving process and the engineering design process. All processes, modifications, images and ideas (among every other detail of what they do) is recorded in their engineering notebook which freshman Jonathan Palomo is in charge of. The judges of the competition look at this as well.

Programming is also greatly involved in the robotics team, as they have to learn the language of the robot. In the first 30 seconds of the game, the robot is not controlled and left alone to do whatever it was programmed to do. After this period of time, the game continues and the robot is controlled via remote. The remote is connected via coding apps through two phones connected to wifi, one connected through the remote and one in the robot. The coding app has various tools from measuring degrees to color coding which can be used to perform tasks depending on what color it sees. This robot has almost human-senses. During the game, each team plays against two random teams with each team having to play at least five matches.

The way the team is able to identify the robots is by giving them names. The first robot is known as Bulldog and the rest are given a version number which becomes the name of the robot depending if it’s a new robot or the robot went through a major modification, such as the version two robot they had previously built with basic geometry.

“Each student has a lot of potential, they have gifts, it just took time to show, but they have slowly found their gifts, roles and make this team a functional team, and I hope that they eventually are able to lead this team like Victor, that’s my goal,” Saldaña said.

Right now, Dog Works will be going to compete at regionals on Feb. 23-25 in San Antonio for the Alamo First Tech Challenge Regional Championship. They, along with various other teams from the Rio Grande Valley, might also be competing in downtown Pharr where streets will be blocked for students to play from 4 to 8 p.m. on March 25, where more than 15,000 people from Texas and Mexico are expected to participate. This event is open and free to the public. For more information about this event, you can visit the Facebook page here.