Story by Natalie Rodriguez   |   Photography by Sylvia Elzafon

It all started in spring 2012 with a little robotics activity in a Robert T. Hill Middle School science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) class. Girls and boys in Eliana Tseng’s STEM class got to experiment with robotics equipment during their spare time. Students became very interested, and it took no time to evolve into a club.They originally met after school, but Tseng became aware that many kids were involved in sports and other clubs that occurred during that time. She asked her Robotics Club members if they would be willing to meet before school so students would be able to enjoy other clubs and athletics, too. They decided to meet every weekday, bright and early, at 6:30 a.m.

It wasn’t long before the club took off and made amazing progress. The robotics teams would later make it to state, national and world competitions. In 2014, after making it to the VEX Robotics World Competition two years in a row, she was able to make Robotics Club into an official class elective, so students could work on robots during class.

This past January, students and staff of Hill Middle School were deeply affected by the death of Tseng, who taught at Hill for 13 years, beginning in fall 2009. She was an inspiration to many students and holds a special place in everyone’s heart.

One of her greatest (and many) accomplishments at Hill was the STEM/robotics program. She started it in 2012, receiving grants from various donors, and worked diligently to create a suitable technology-driven opportunity for Hill students. Tseng’s passion for STEM/robotics is shown by the more than 40 trophies won in her almost 10 years as head of the school’s STEM program.

Along with teaching both STEM and robotics classes, she conducted tests, challenges and interviews for incoming students interested in joining. Her requirements for the program included having an 80 average or above in all classes, volunteering for school-related activities and competing in at least one academic competition. She pushed students to their full potential, which is what made the STEM program so prestigious.

To recruit students, Tseng would go to elementary schools and demonstrate activities that STEM students got to do if they joined. This included activities related to robotics, field trips to NASA and opportunities to meet professionals in the field. Another focus for Tseng was to recruit female students. As a woman in the STEM field herself, it was personally important to invite girls to join and expand their knowledge on science and technology and provide a bright future for women in STEM.

During the 2020-21 school year, it’s easy to imagine how hard it was to achieve everything with half of her students at home. But Tseng still made it work. She met with at-home students regularly on Zoom and discussed what they were going to do and how they could still help the team. Despite all obstacles, the teams still made it to both the state and world competitions, even winning an award at VEX Worlds. 

Her death was a shock to the entire school and has been difficult to overcome, but her Robotics Club students did not let that stop them from participating in competitions because that’s what Tseng would’ve wanted. The biggest obstacle isn’t the drive to compete, but who will sponsor it? Since Tseng was the only STEM/robotics teacher, there was no one who knew the program’s ins and outs. No one on campus knew how to plan and keep track of events. Who was going to lead and guide now?

But the students and staff at Hill came together in honor of Tseng and have persevered, thanks to several teachers jumping in to help.

Hill Middle School is going to keep Tseng’s legacy and the STEM program going. It is in the process of hiring a new teacher, and currently interviewing incoming students  interested in STEM and robotics. Current students and teachers are working together to make this happen.

Despite all of this, several teams have made accomplishments in competitions this year. Teams 505B (eighth-grade girls) and 505C (eighth-grade boys) made it to the national competition, and team 505T (seventh-grade girls) made it to the VEX Robotics Worlds competition for the 2021-22 school year.

The robotics teams will continue to win — not for themselves, but for Tseng.

Natalie Rodriguez is an eighth-grader and STEM/Robotics Club member at Hill Middle School.