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Les Quiocho brings out the ‘BEST’ in kids aspiring to STEM careers

May 10, 2017
People at NASA’s Johnson Space Center are passionate about their jobs in the space program. Numerous employees dedicate their time and talents outside the workplace to share that passion.

Les Quiocho is one such individual. A senior robotics engineer within Johnson’s Software, Robotics and Simulation Division, he and others have volunteered for years with the Boosting Engineering Science and Technology (BEST) program. BEST Robotics, Inc. is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization that coordinates robotics competitions for middle and high school students. Each year, they have more than 18,000 students participate in the competitions, representing more than 850 schools—all with the intent to provide students with hands-on opportunities to develop math and engineering skills and inspire them to pursue STEM careers.

For more about BEST, click here.

NASA has also partnered with Texas Instruments to create a fun new contest to highlight the STEM and coding skills used to explore space every day. For more information, visit www.SearchForSTEMnauts.com.
 
Now, meet Les Quiocho. 
  • Part of the NASA Johnson Space Center family since 1989
  • BEST Program volunteer since 1999
  • Westbrook Intermediate School Volunteer of the Year - 2015
  • Texas PTA Honorary Lifetime Membership - 2016
 
How did you get involved with BEST?
My younger sister was working at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and introduced me to an aerospace structures engineer who was heavily involved in BEST. After speaking to him and getting a basic understanding of the program, he mentioned that a hub was being formed in Houston, and I immediately volunteered for one of the committee positions and began helping facilitate the initial competition for the Houston area that fall. By the way, the name of the hub was Space City BEST.
 
What is the most rewarding part of being involved with this student program?
In 2005, when my oldest son entered the new Westbrook Intermediate School as a sixth grader, I began to teach and mentor at the school. Their competition team is named Westbrook Intermediate Robotics Engineering Division (or WIRED). To me, the most rewarding part of being involved in BEST is seeing the successes as a result of the program. I have countless students that I have taught/mentored over the years, and it is extremely satisfying to see them pursue technical degrees and, ultimately, become employed in STEM-related fields. Some of these students, including my son, are now engineers who have also come back to help mentor the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade team members. This is extremely rewarding.
 
By the way, our WIRED team has done pretty well, competitively speaking.  We’ve qualified for the Texas BEST Regional Championship 10 of the last 11 years, attending nine of these big multi-state events.
 
What changes have you observed with the students/education during your time being involved with BEST?
One thing that I have noticed is that students now involved in BEST have many more technologies available to them, particularly from a computer hardware and software perspective. For example, when I first became engaged in BEST, the robot control systems were simple electronics based on Futaba Radio Control equipment (just a transmitter and receiver). Nowadays, a VEX Robotics microprocessor is supplied, and it requires programming in either easyC or RobotC. The machines are also controlled by drivers using X-box-type wireless controllers instead of model aircraft radios. The requirements of marketing efforts have also changed significantly. Students are using computer-aided design programs like SolidWorks for the project engineering notebook, marketing presentation and exhibit booth elements (as opposed to hand drawings). Other software tools, like Prezi for the marketing presentation, are also being used. In addition to a customized WIRED website (see ccisd-wired.com), they have even introduced social media applications like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for additional team exposure.
 
What skills do you feel are most valuable for students who desire to work at NASA, or more specifically, in robotics?
The obvious answer here is as much math and science as possible, along with other skills necessary for a STEM career. One skill that is extremely important, especially for those interested in robotics, is fundamental software development. I am not referring to any particular programming language, but rather a basic understanding of the concepts of editing, compiling, linking, executing, debugging and configuration management of programs. With these types of programming skills, one can then apply them to any given language.
 
Another important skill that we stress with WIRED is that of systems integration. Robotics is highly interdisciplinary, even at this level, so having the ability to work in different areas like mechanics, electronics and computer hardware/software, as well as knowing how these subsystem elements function together toward a final product, is paramount.
 
Finally, and this is probably universal to all types of engineering (and not just robotics), is the ability to solve problems.
 
What keeps you volunteering year after year?
I believe the primary thing that keeps me volunteering year after year is my passion for teaching and mentoring students. I truly enjoy working with young people and believe that I have a natural aptitude for it. (I’ve often heard from other teachers and administrators that I’ve missed my “true calling.”) I also feel that I’ve been blessed with a long and successful career with NASA, so it is one small way that I can give back to young people who have a similar interest in robotics and engineering.
 
What advice did you wish you had received as a student that you think would be helpful for students today?
One piece of advice that I wish I had received as a young student is that it is OK, and often beneficial, to make mistakes. I’ve come to realize during the many years of mentoring that some of the best lessons learned are through making mistakes and failing, especially when dealing with the engineering-design process. Many of my students today are so afraid of making mistakes that, at times, they don’t want to try different or new things. I think part of this comes from the environment that many of them are raised in, or perhaps it is a function of society in general.
 
And, in closing …
For the past three years, I have also taught an introductory engineering mini-course entitled “Engineered to Last” at Westbrook. I cover a wide range of basic concepts through numerous hands-on projects, done as mini-competitions, and even have a capstone project similar to what most college engineering students experience in their final two semesters. I also start each class with a “quote of the day” from a well-known engineer, scientist or writer, just to get the students thinking.
Les Quiocho demonstrates PVC cutting with the RotoZip tool. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
Les Quiocho demonstrates PVC cutting with the RotoZip tool. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
Quiocho, center, with future 2017 WIRED subsystem leads. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
Quiocho, center, with future 2017 WIRED subsystem leads. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
The team takes first place overall at the 2016 USTEM BEST Competition. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
The team takes first place overall at the 2016 USTEM BEST Competition. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
The WIRED team shows off their robot creation. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
The WIRED team shows off their robot creation. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
BEST gives students hands-on opportunities to develop math and engineering skills, necessary for STEM careers, all while having fun with robotics. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.
BEST gives students hands-on opportunities to develop math and engineering skills, necessary for STEM careers, all while having fun with robotics. Image courtesy of Les Quiocho.