McAllen ISD robotics program thriving at every campus

Special to McAllen ISD by Kenneth Roberts

The robotics program provided by McAllen ISD is expanding opportunities for students and showing exceptional growth, with teams now present on every district campus from elementary through high school.  

Lily Sandoval Silva, the Director for McAllen ISD’s Career Technical Education program, said the robotics program is an excellent complement to the McAllen ISD framework.

 “It enables the robotics students to work as a team, which will reflect what the real world is like,” she said. “They need to know how to communicate effectively. They learn how to be creative in many ways, and they need to know the different aspects of problem solving. These are skills that are needed for a strongly and effectively functioning economy.”

 McAllen ISD began the program four years ago. It started at James “Nikki” Rowe High with one team and three students. Now, there are 52 teams spread across 31 campuses in McAllen ISD with more than 1,000 students participating.   

In fact, McAllen ISD is one of only three Valley school districts that have teams at 100 percent of its campuses.

 The program expansion at elementary and middle schools was substantially helped because the McAllen Education Foundation awarded the district a $41,000 grant to increase Robotics teams at the elementary and middle schools. The Foundation has awarded more than 360 innovative teaching grants since its inception in 1996.

“The Robotics program is certainly of tremendous benefit to the district and to the community as a whole,” CTE Coordinator Diana Pena said. “I’m very pleased about how the program has advanced in McAllen ISD, both in terms of quality and quantity.”

 This past spring, four teams from McAllen High and one team from Rowe qualified for state competition. A McAllen High team won a UIL state championship in 2018. 

 “If Robotics is successful at the high school level, it has to start from the ground up at the elementary and middle schools,” Pena said. “Rayburn and Milam Elementary Schools had very successful teams last year (2017-18) and they moved up to Morris Middle School, which had the highest performing robot in FLL (First Lego League) competition in the Rio Grande Valley Region for 2018-19.”

 She pointed out that McAllen High “had the highest performing robot at the First Tech Challenge” UIL competition in February 2019. According to program leaders, First Lego League “engages younger students with real-world engineering by challenging them to build Lego-based robots to complete tasks.”

 Students learn the intricacies of coding.

 “Coding is an essential part of what we do,” McAllen High Robotics Instructor Robert Saldana said. “Our students code, or program, the robots using Android Studio which uses the Java programming language. Our students use two Android phones to control the robot via Wifi-Direct. One phone is connected to the robot and the other is connected to a Logitech gaming controller. Our students code each of the buttons on the controller to control the robot to their liking which may also affect the robot design and precision, so they must be wise in how they code it.”

The program focuses on the growth of the student too.

“McAllen ISD focuses on the core values of students, including emotional intelligence,” Pena said. “Robotics competition blends in very nicely with this focus.”

To learn more about McAllen ISD’s robotics program, contact the Career Technical Education office at 956-632-5181.