Distinguished teacher sees students transformed through robotics program
Omar Cortez has been a key player in transforming the robotics program over the past three years at the School for the Talented and Gifted in Pleasant Grove. In his first year on campus, he said he was so excited to start competing that he entered a robotics competition before there was even a team.
Six interested students joined the new robotics club at the time, and now, Cortez teaches robotics to every sixth-grade student on campus while coaching 40 students in five teams in middle and elementary school alongside three other driven teachers and coaches. Cortez and fellow coaches Julian Beltran, Brittney Fletcher and Alba Ramirez have been working together to foster the teams. They have seen tremendous success.
“The interest in robotics at our campus has grown miraculously,” Cortez said. “It’s been a dream, with all the support that I’ve ever wanted from Dallas ISD. We wanted robots, and we got robots—one for every three students in my classroom. The kids love it, and I love it. It’s been a blast.”
Mastering robotics is about more than building and programming. Cortez also helps his students develop leadership and public speaking skills, and he said it has been “incredible” to watch them gain confidence and break out of their shells.
One student was quiet and nervous when he joined Cortez’s robotics club in sixth grade. The student wanted to drive a robot in competitions—a role that Cortez said comes with a high level of pressure—and in the student’s first competition, he became so nervous that he believed he could not do it. Cortez encouraged him to persevere and believe in himself, and the student, who is still on the robotics team as an eighth grader, thrived.
“I’ve had teachers and my principal tell me, ‘When this student came in, he was introverted, he was a little bit nervous. Now he’s active in class. He’s holding conversations, and he’s participating in different ways,’” Cortez said. “To see that come full circle, to see him grow and become this leader, has been amazing.”
Cortez recently learned that his hard work and dedication helped him earn the distinguished teacher level. He credits his success to the rapid growth of the school’s robotics program, his students’ passion for the craft and incorporating a competitive aspect into his teaching.
Every robotics unit ends with an assessment, and Cortez said he loves turning them into competitions, such as robot soccer, in which his students can earn prizes like gummy bears. His students get so excited for the assessments that Cortez said some of them will even come to his room during lunch to work on their projects.
“I would challenge other teachers to have fun and try to bring challenges into the classroom,” Cortez said. “Once I started doing that and bringing my own twists in, that led to my greatest successes, not only for my distinction to be a distinguished teacher, but also with the students, because now, I have students who are engaged and who are wanting to do this.”