Off the Clock: Maria Uriyo started a nonprofit robotics group and competes in tournaments with her family

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Life is much more than time spent on the clock. In this series, we highlight the unique hobbies and volunteer activities of Mason's talented faculty and staff.

As assistant professor and online Master of Health Administration coordinator in George Mason University’s College of Public Health (CPH), Maria Uriyo teaches courses on Contemporary Issues in Health Systems Management and co-manages the Master of Health Administration Program's capstone research class.  

When she’s off the clock, she coaches and mentors children in competitive robotics through her non-profit group, Abacus Robotics, which she formed with her husband. The non-profit provides STEM programs to children within the community and its competitive team, IronMechs, competes in various tournaments throughout the year.

How did you first get started with coaching robotics?  How long have you been doing it?   

In 2012, I was drawn into robotics by my eldest daughter who was interested in being part of her school’s robotics club. By 2015, my husband and I decided to create a private team. This initial team consisted of a child from another family and all three of our children. Our goal was to provide an environment that would nurture and allow full exposure to the various phases of building a robot and being on a competitive robotics team. This team evolved over the years to what it is now. 

What is the time commitment? Does it vary at different times of year? 

Our teams meet on Saturday mornings for four hours, and we focus on building, coding and driving sessions. The VEX Robotics season starts in August and ends in April with tournaments at local, regional, state, national and world levels. Teams aim to qualify to compete at the state-level championships, which will then open the way for them to compete at the world level. We typically register teams to compete at four local tournaments in order for them to qualify to compete at the state level, which last two days, and at the world level, which lasts three. 

The IronMechs Middle School team won the Career Readiness Online Challenge Award received at the VEX Robotics World Championship in Dallas, Texas, on April 29. 

Maria Uriyo (second from right), her husband Newland Agbenowosi (center) and assistant coach, Julie Fant (second from left) with students from their robotics team.
Maria Uriyo (second from right), her husband Newland Agbenowosi (center) and assistant coach, Julie Fant (second from left) with students from their robotics team.


What has been the most meaningful or memorable experience you’ve had in this hobby?   

In 2015, our team qualified to compete at the national competition in Council Bluffs, Iowa. One memory still stands out: witnessing our team helping another team from Garland, Texas, diagnose why their robot was not functioning. The children on the team from Texas couldn’t speak English. Despite the language barrier, both teams were able to communicate through their shared objective of fixing the robot, with engineering and robotics transcending cultural boundaries and allowing for cross-cultural collaboration. As a coach, it was a truly heartwarming experience to witness. 

What lessons have you learned through this experience?   

I’ve learned many lessons from coaching robotics, such as success in a team comes from members who are willing to learn, adapt, and collaborate with others while being open to new ideas. Also, robotics provides an excellent platform for bringing the design process to life. It involves working within required specifications and regulations for building robots that have various capabilities. Lastly, as a coach/mentor, it is crucial to have teaching values/principles that you adhere to. Contrarian views that shift such values will negatively affect the team’s performance. 

What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?   

When possible, I enjoy road trips with my family. I enjoy nature and love taking photos of flowers—especially roses.