Students build interest in robots

Writer: Ashley Meeks
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – Angel Valencia has spent half his life dreaming about robots, ever since he started building little K’Nex motors at 6 and then, at 7, reading an article in the newspaper about humanoid machines – the ones that can play soccer and sing.

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Kristen Davis, 14, of White Sands Middle School repairs the arm of Wall-e, her team’s robot, during the BEST competition at NMSU. (Photo by Robin Zielinski, Las Cruces Sun-News)

“I thought, ‘If they could build it, I could build it,'” the 12-year-old said Saturday, surrounded by screaming, cheering teams rushing in between competitive rounds and last-minute ‘bot adjustments at the ninth annual BEST competition at New Mexico State University.

For the past nine weeks, using identical equipment and parts, more than 400 students from 18 schools in New Mexico and Texas have been building robots that can identify and separate faulty products from good ones. Valencia, the robot’s driver, was one of 11 students representing Picacho Middle School, one of four Do a Ana County schools in Saturday’s competition.

“I think I want to work for NASA – build robots and test them,” he said.

Fellow seventh-grader Brianna Chacon, the team’s “process engineer,” said she hopes the skills she practiced Saturday on the team’s robot also lead to a career in science or math.

“You just have fun – you want it to do well,” she said. “I just really was interested in science and thought it’d be really cool to make a robot.”

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who paid a visit Saturday morning, said he wanted to introduce even more kids like Valencia and Chacon to the world of engineering, science and technology. He’s co-sponsoring a bill, with New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, that would allow the Department of Education to issue grants to schools who want to participate in such programs.

“It’s obvious this is a big deal for these kids,” Bingaman said.

NMSU President Barbara Couture said she saw a lot of future Aggies in Saturday’s crowd.

“I learned about teams that had to completely rebuild their robot – they’re learning about problem-solving,” she said. “They’re articulate. They’re seeing how you get things done when you’re working in a team. And they’re doing a great job at it.”


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