Tuesday, August 25, 2020

By Victoria Brito

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – A group of upcoming high school seniors this summer attended the I-DREAM4D virtual summer camp, where they were able to put their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to work.

UTRGV in February was awarded a $3.96 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to establish educational opportunities that enhance manufacturing skills critical to the country’s defense systems. The I-DREAM4D consortium was created from that grant.

“This summer camp is a pilot,” said Dr. Jianzhi Li, UTRGV professor of manufacturing and industrial engineering and principal investigator. “I am pretty sure next summer we will use the same format of a virtual camp, and we will try to duplicate this camp on other campuses in the consortium.”

Camp directors were Li; Dr. Richard Crawford, professor of mechanical engineering at UT Austin; Dr. Alley Butler, UTRGV professor and co-PI on the grant; and Edna Orozco, manufacturing and industrial engineering lecturer at UTRGV.

Crawford, lead on the summer camp, said students were recruited from a network of high school STEM teachers to identify potential qualified candidates with an interest in engineering. Applicants were interviewed on interests, GPA and an interview, and the best applicants were selected.

Originally, the summer camp was going to take place in person on the UT Austin campus for participating students in the Austin area, with Butler assisting. Then, Butler was going to return to the UTRGV campus and replicate the camp for the RGV participants.

“I initially envisioned running a summer camp where we work with the kids to build drones, like little quadcopters, where they can focus much more on design and fabrication, than we were able to do this summer,” Crawford said.  “None of that was possible remotely.”

Instead, the 11 students from across the state who participated were sent Parallax Arduino Boe Shield Bot robotics kits to build as part of the camp. With assistance online through Zoom meetings held twice a day in four-hour sessions, the campers began assembling their robots the first week.

First, students built the basic robot, then added a circuit board, sensors, coders on the wheels and cameras.

After each addition, students participated in challenges to demonstrate proficiencies attained for that day. For example, the camp theme was recycling, and one challenge involved picking up and moving aluminum cans into a recycling bin. The exercise allowed students to navigate the control and practice using sensors and camera.

The camp covered several different concepts of engineering and accommodated a variety of learning styles and levels of knowledge.

“Some students were working ahead,” Orozco said. “Some needed extra help, and some just kept up. Sometimes we were teaching to three different levels and switched back and forth.”

The directors used Zoom breakout rooms and other useful technology, like instructional videos, to make the camp efficient.


Of the 11 camp members, more than half were from the Rio Grande Valley.

Annacaren Gutierrez, a senior at James Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen, learned about the camp from her physics teacher.

Gutierrez has previous experience working on robots as a member of her high school robotics club, but programming was a new concept for her.

“To fully understand how the robot worked, I had to understand the background information of all of the sensors and circuits,” she said. “It was a lot of information, but it was very helpful to fully understand what the robot would be doing and why it would be doing it.”

Kaleb Vasquez, a senior at McAllen Memorial High School, is also a member of his high school robotics club and showed an interest in the camp after receiving an email from his engineering teacher.

The virtual format took a bit of adjusting, he said, but overall, he gained valuable skills at the I-DREAM4D summer camp.

“I would call the camp ‘self-paced,’ in a way, since we were given instructions on what to do and assignments to complete,” he said. “Dr. Crawford was always there to answer any questions we had, so we were never left to figure it out with no help.”

Vasquez said the best overall lesson from the camp is the time and effort needed to perfect skills like building a robot.

“Going into this camp, programming scared me to death because I had no idea what all these lines of code meant,” Vasquez said.  “After some time of experimenting with coding, those jitters I had at the beginning were completely gone. While I might not be an expert at programming, I certainly feel more confident than before.”

READ MORE ABOUT UTRGV’S I-DREAM4D:  https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/02/21-utrgv-leading-national-collaborative-to-develop-manufacturing-innovations-for-us-department-of-defense.htm


I-DREAM4D, a Department of Defense Consortium for Innovation Driven Research/Education Ecosystem for Advanced Manufacturing for the Defense,  created by the DoD to support the talent needs for the United States military and U.S. defense manufacturing operations. The focus of the consortium is through a collaborative effort, to conduct impactful research for defense innovations and to prepare engineers and scientists who lead the US defense manufacturing innovation.

The consortium is composed of five higher education institutions (UTRGV, UT Austin, UTSA, Virginia Tech, Virginia State University), national research centers, national labs, defense manufacturers, local high school districts, and community colleges. The goal is to promote advanced additive manufacturing (AM) and smart manufacturing (SM) and to support innovations for the defense industries.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.