Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

As part of Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15) the REC Foundation is highlighting Hispanic members of the VEX robotics community. We recently sat down with Patricia Cortez, an educator based in Dallas, Texas, Air Force pilot and AI Researcher Victor Lopez, and Carlos Hernandez, Computer Science and Technology Department Coordinator for the Dallas Independent School District. We spoke with them about the challenges they faced getting involved in STEM, the people that helped them along the way, and advice for members of the Hispanic community who want to get involved in robotics. A huge thanks to all of you for being such vibrant supporters of student roboticists!

Patricia Cortez
Educator
Dallas Independent School District

Headshot of Patricia Cortez
Patricia Cortez

“As a Hispanic woman serving and living in the exact same community in which I grew up, I must say I am fortunate to be able to come back and empower children with the skills and confidence necessary to represent their culture and heritage proudly.”

What first inspired you to become involved in STEM?

How I became interested in robotics is quite a funny story. I initially joined robotics as a co-coach with a friend. He convinced me to go on this journey of which I knew absolutely nothing about. Doubting my robotics abilities, I decided to be a “behind the scenes” coach. I helped students with organization skills, interview skills, notebooking skills and presentation skills. I did that for three years and in that third year I encountered two little third grade girls that would end up being my inspiration for many later decisions. These girls didn’t want a behind the scenes role on the team, they wanted to do more for the team, they wanted to be drivers, programmers, builders. Therefore, I had to do more. We ended up venturing out on our own and creating our own all girl, Latina team, the LadyBots. These girls taught me so much about robotics, about taking risks, and most importantly to always believe in yourself.

What challenges have you overcome within the program?

One of the greatest challenges has been getting girls to believe in themselves. Many girls lack self-confidence, particularly in public speaking and aren’t confident in their abilities. However, getting my girls to truly believe they can do ANYTHING that anyone else can do no matter their gender or race has been the best challenge I have overcome as a coach within the program.

What has been the best thing about being involved in robotics/STEM?

The best thing about being involved in robotics is seeing student growth. Not only in the aspect of creating robots, but in their self-confidence, their communication skills, their organization skills, their social skills, and their leadership. Robotics isn’t just building robots, “robotics is life” as one of my LadyBots would say. These girls have created a brand for themselves with their engineering abilities, communication skills, style, and girl power pride and it just fills my  heart with so much joy.

Why do you think that more Hispanic students should become involved in robotics/STEM?

Currently, we have a small population of Hispanic engineers in the United States. In fact, Hispanics make up 16 percent of the American workforce, but only 8 percent of scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. Needless to say we are underrepresented. Robotics is a gateway to many STEM fields and provides numerous benefits including leadership opportunities, communication skills, problem solving, and collaboration skills, just to name a few. Let’s get some more of our Raza representing! It all begins somewhere!

What words of wisdom would you give to students in or outside of robotics currently?

Believe in yourself and never doubt your capabilities. Starting robotics is half the battle. The other half can be accomplished with grit, determination, and perseverance. Robotics may seem “hard”, but there is nothing about it that can't be learned. “¡Si, se puede!”

Believe in yourself and never doubt your capabilities. Starting robotics is half the battle. The other half can be accomplished with grit, determination, and perseverance. Robotics may seem “hard”, but there is nothing about it that can't be learned. “¡Si, se puede!”

Carlos Hernandez
Computer Science/Technology Department Coordinator
Dallas Independent School District

“John Quincy Adams said it best, ‘Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.’ Success doesn’t always come immediately; you must fail a few times and learn from your failures before you can taste success. So, when the task seems difficult, be patient, take a deep breath, and full steam ahead.”

Carlos Hernandez

How long have you been in your career field?

I am a Coordinator in the Computer Science and Technology Department in Dallas ISD. I have served in this role for 4 years now. I help provide robotics program opportunities for our over 140,000 K-12 students. I also run district VEX IQ Challenge competitions for our over 160 VEX IQ teams. My task is to make students fall in love with the world of robotics.

What first inspired you to become involved in STEM?

As a child I would observe my father take things apart for repair; everything from car parts to ceiling fans, and even stereos. This intrigued me and I too began to wonder how things worked and what’s inside that makes them work. Seven years ago, while I was a classroom teacher, a coworker of mine asked if I wanted to help mentor a robotics team at our campus. I agreed and was introduced to the world of VEX Robotics Competitions. I became a kid all over again. Needless to say, I now live vicariously through them.

What challenges have you overcome?

Competing against sports programs was one of our biggest challenges. Many of our students thought that to participate in extracurricular programs, you must participate in athletics. Once robotics and other STEM programs were introduced to them, many fell in love with the program and felt like they fit in. In less than eight years our programs have gone from fewer than 10 robotics teams to well over 350 teams and growing. Presently, we are focused on increasing the number of female participants and increasing representation from underrepresented minority groups in our district’s programs.

What has been the best thing about being involved in robotics/STEM?

The best part of being involved with both robotics and STEM is watching how students learn to work in teams and develop their communication skills. I love watching the little light bulbs come on over their heads as they engage in conversations with teammates to solve a problem or strategize their moves for their next match. They don’t even notice the valuable skills and knowledge they are learning while they are caught up in the excitement.

Why do you think that more Hispanic students should become involved in robotics/STEM?

Growing up in a Hispanic household taught me a great lesson on how to persevere regardless of how tough the going got. Perseverance is an earmark of the Hispanic community. I believe more Hispanic students should become involved in STEM and help eliminate the potential barriers and encourage the younger Latinos to get involved in STEM. Currently, Hispanic individuals comprise only 8 percent of the STEM workforce. We must start making changes and become more involved.

Victor Lopez
Air Force Pilot
Artificial Intelligence Researcher for sUAS Agile Robots

Victor Lopez

"Robots are not just for nerdy engineers. We need all types of people and the best robots in the future will come from folks who understand how to blend art, science, and engineering to create something beautiful and easy to use to help people and save lives."

How did you get your start in robotics?

An internship with the precursor to NASA Pathways changed my perspective on how engineering and math could be used to help people around the world. I struggled to find meaning in the theory of mathematics, but I was enamored of those same methods used to predict landslides or provide early warning for natural disasters via space based assets.

Who were your mentors?

Early in my NASA internship, I was guided by my fellow cadets and professors at the United States Air Force Academy, and today I am honored to be a part of the Department of the Air Force’s new DAF - MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, where we get to work with world class professors and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to push forward state of the art AI towards very compelling humanitarian and defense related use cases.

What advice would you give to students?

The best roboticists I’ve met are also the best online searchers I’ve ever met, so learn to use your favorite search engine! The amount of education you can get online for free today is incredible, and the only thing that is holding you back is your own time and discipline. So start small! Learn how to code a small project… find a small Arduino project and explore what it can do with a friend! All of this can go on your resume and make you stand out among your peers. It may even help you land that internship!

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