Members of a relatively new after school club at Heizer Middle School in Hobbs got a big surprise recently.
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Club was formed by instructor John Perales to enter the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge, an annual competition designed to introduce middle and high school students to critical thinking skills and project-based learning focused on science and engineering, Perales said.
But when he learned of the Solve for Tomorrow Contest sponsored by technology company Samsung, Perales decided to get his students involved.
Fast forward several weeks to find Perales rushing through the halls of the school and bursting into his student’s classrooms, announcing they were one of only two schools in New Mexico to advance to the next level.
“Most of us were in the class Mr. Perales burst into,” said Sydney Taylor, 12. “When he said ‘We won,’ it took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about.”
Addyson Dudley, 12, agreed, “It didn’t sink in right away. Then, when we met after school, it was just crazy — this is our first year and we won.”
The Solve for Tomorrow Contest calls on students in grades six through 12 from across the country to “creatively use STEM skills to tackle local issues of national importance…,” according to a press release announcing the award.
A total of 100 schools — two in each state — will receive $6,500 for classroom technology and a video kit to be used to produce a video about their projects for the next phase of the competition.
Heizer Middle School, along with Mescalero Apache School in Otero County, were selected as the New Mexico winners from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants.
Students in the STEM Club didn’t shy away from embracing the call to address an important topic. They’re creating an app to make it safer for victims to report abuse and domestic violence without their abusers finding out and possibly retaliating, Perales and the students said.
“I asked the students to come up with a big topic, not specific problems at first,” he said. “Then we narrowed it down from there.”
The students looked at a variety of topics, from helping small businesses that struggled under the pandemic to clean water, housing and more, Perales and the students said.
“I remember at first we had many topics we were trying to chose from,” said Ailyn Gonzales, 12. “We did more research and we came up with the idea of making an app for (reporting) domestic violence.”
Some of the students said they were influenced, at least in part, because they knew of families in Hobbs who were dealing with domestic violence in their homes.
As part of their research, students also interviewed staff at Options Inc., a local domestic violence shelter and outreach non-for-profit organization, along with social workers and police officers working in the school. What they learned only served to convince the students they’d chosen the right topic.
“We new there was a lot of violence around in general,” Dudley said. “We also noticed no only is there violence in the homes, like there is everywhere, but we noticed in the school there’s violence, there’s fights.”
During their interviews, the students also recognized a correlation between a significant increase in domestic violence cases and the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzales said. Talking to Options, she learned reports jumped by more than 100 between 2019 and 2020, from 350 to more than 450.
“We also learned mostly it’s very hard for people to report (abuse), especially children,” said Joshua Torrez, 12. “They tend to blame themselves. They’re made to think it’s their fault they were abused.”
The police resource officer in the school told the students as many as seven students a week report being victims of some type of abuse, Taylor said. She also said she learned the officers wished it was easier — and safer — for the young victims to report.
Perales’s students came up with the concept for their app that would be disguised as an educational app. To an outside observer, for example an abuser looking over a victim’s shoulder, it would appear the victim was working on math or some other school problem.
That would protect the victim from possible reprisals resulting from their wish to report the abuse.
“We wanted it to be more subtle, as discrete as possible, so it would be safer for the victim to report,” Perales said.
The STEM Club meets Tuesdays and Thursdays after school hours, he said. Currently, they’re in the process of learning the coding and programming language needed to actually write the app.
Fortunately, as part of being one of the state winners, Samsung is providing access to programming and app professionals who will mentor both Perales and his students as they move forward with the next phase of the contest.
“We have the things we need,” Perales said. “We’re in the process of learning the (programming) language. But we’re done with conceptualizing the app, what it’s going to look like.”
This is not the first time a Hobbs school has been recognized on the national stage. In September, Coronado Elementary in Hobbs was named a national Blue Ribbon School designation from the U.S. Department of Education.
“I think it’s proof of effort, that (Hobbs Schools) efforts are being recognized,” said Gene Strickland, superintendent of schools. “We’ve said for many years we know our staff is working extremely hard.
“No all of those things are represented in awards,” Strickland said. “But when we get the opportunity to be recognized, from a national picture, it’s great to see Hobbs, America, talked about in those national platforms. Congratulations to Heizer Middle School.”
Strickland said he was also pleased the STEM Club students weren’t afraid to embrace a serious topic that’s part of a larger, national conversation.
“It reflects on our student’s willingness to engage in a difficult topic,” Strickland said. “We have a group of kids who are saying we know this is going to be difficult, but we’re not going to cancel this conversation, just because it is difficult.
“I’m excited for the kiddos to be able to delve into a topic that can quite honestly make society better,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as adults to show them responsible choices, responsible decision making.”
The students said they were — and still are — a bit intimidated, competing against high school students, many from larger, magnet schools that focus most of their time on STEM education. But they aren’t daunted in their goals.
“One thing I was worried about when we started this is we would be underestimated in our work because we are middle school students,” Taylor said. “But it’s proven to work out pretty good.”
Perales said he, too, was a bit concerned because typical winners of competitions of this type are usually high schools. But he has every confidence in his team.
“I see a lot of potential in these kids,” he said. “These kids — not only these kids, but Heizer students overall, they’re really good. They just needed someone to believe in them.
“There have been days we had some arguments (over the app), but at the end of the day, they were the one saying, ‘Mr. Perales, I thought we were just going to enjoy the process,’” Perales said. “So they are the ones reminding me about enjoying the process and not being after winning. Winning is the bonus.”