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Computer science teacher creates esports program

Mr. Hernandez Computer ScienceComputer science education week is Dec. 6-12, and the district’s computer science teachers are top notch. One educator in particular, Robby Hernandez at Jefferson High School, is inspiring students in STEM curriculum while coaching six esports teams, one of which just competed in the state quarterfinals this year.


Hernandez is not afraid of a challenge. He balances seven class preps while coaching his successful varsity esports program through two competition seasons each academic year.


Hernandez has a background in computer science, but when he started at Jefferson seven years ago, he taught math. Over the last three years, he has gradually shifted from teaching all math classes, to teaching six different computer science courses and one section of AP calculus. 


He is always scouring for cross-curricular connections and applications of content to make sure his students are engaged and prepared for the future. Sometimes this looks like the mini production studio in his classroom, which he used to provide best-quality instruction during the earlier stages of the pandemic. Other times, many times, it is connected to his passion for games.


“I’ve always felt that games are a powerful way to learn a lot of different things,” Hernandez said. “Most of my history knowledge is from Age of Empires.”


Before he began at Jefferson, Hernandez started an esports club during his year with City Year at Rhodes Middle School. Noting the benefits of esports including communication, leadership skills, teamwork and strategy, Hernandez said when his students at Jefferson approached him three years ago about starting a club, he agreed right away, with one caveat.


“I had always seen esports at the professional level, so I said, ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right,’” he said. “I want us to compete for the school, and I want us to be a team.”


After securing all the necessary approvals, the team was set to compete in Spring 2020 — just in time to be shut down by COVID-19. Then last year, Hernandez says, he still had a core group committed to playing.


"I had an amazing group, so we were able to keep a couple of teams alive last year,” he said. “They played from home until we were allowed to come back to campus. It was honestly six players who kept us alive, and then this year, we just blew up.”


They really did. With 25 students on six competition teams this year, the esports teams went deep in the playoffs this fall, with the League of Legends and Super Smash Brothers teams making the Top 16, and the varsity Rocket League team making it to the quarterfinal round under the coaching of Hernandez and his assistant coach, Arra Novak. 


“He’s very supportive,” Zeke Villarreal, a Jefferson senior who played League of Legends, said. “He makes the game, which is a very complex game, into something simple, which is very hard to do, so anyone can learn it, no matter what.”


Hernandez is proud that the competition teams contained both veterans and students who were new to the games.


“With some players being new, it would be easy to be frustrated with players who don’t understand the game as much, but we don’t let negativity infiltrate our program at all,” Hernandez said. “Everyone is supportive of each other, everyone is positive.”


Hernandez seizes opportunities for collaboration and has fostered community partnerships to help his students, both in his classes and extracurricular activities. Last year, his program received a $5,000 grant from the SAISD Foundation, which he used to purchase gaming computer components that his computer science students then assembled. 


Hernandez says he gives his students those real-world opportunities because he believes that as a teacher, his role is to equip his students with the tools they need to accomplish their goals, in computer science or otherwise. 


“I have a good group of kids who want to make social change,” he said. “I had a student who, for her AP project, created a program to teach people about anxiety symptoms. She wouldn’t have had that knowledge if I wasn’t here teaching.”


He’s also preparing his students for college, both through esports scholarships and Advanced Placement exams. Between his three AP computer science classes and AP calculus class, he expects to have students take 50-60 AP exams at the end of the year. 


“Where students might normally run from a computer science class because it was perceived as hard or not very exciting, they flocked to Mr. Hernandez,” Konise Millender, Career and Technical Education (CTE) coordinator for college, career and military readiness, said. “He has made the subject interesting and palatable.”


In his mentorship role, he also helps other schools throughout the district who are interested in esports, guiding sponsors through the setup process, and giving them guidance on how to get the tools they need for their students to get set up quickly. 


“There’s a lot of community support for esports,” Hernandez said. “I think if people just look for it, we’re going to get it. I’m really excited for those other high schools who want esports, and how we can push to get them to be successful as early as possible, because it took me a long time to get to this point.”


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