UC Berkeley student and sister launch crowdfunding campaign to develop interactive robot kit

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STEM Center USA/Courtesy

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Using the glamour of gadgets as a vehicle to excite students into entering scientific fields, a UC Berkeley student and her sister have designed the Pi-Bot: an affordable robotics kit that enables a hands-on glimpse into the world of engineering.

Designed by UC Berkeley sophomore Lavanya Jawaharlal and her sister Melissa Jawaharlal, who graduated from USC in 2013, Pi-Bot aims to increase students’ interest in the fields of STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The sisters see robotics as a way to integrate all STEM fields together in one “fun, interactive manner.”

“In this current technologically-driven world, it is important to educate students in a way that excites, engages, and excels students to be the next generation of STEM leaders,” said Lavanya in an email.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, the team of engineers hopes to raise $70,000 by April 10, though they currently have less than $18,000. To incentivize donors, the team is offering those who pledge $75 or more their own Pi-Bot kit when the kits are distributed in June.

While Melissa says traditional build-your-own robot kits can needlessly cost upwards of $150, the team has managed to cut that cost in half by developing its own original framework and programmable elements.

Pi-Bot — whose supporting framework is shaped like the Greek letter — is practical in design, being both aerodynamic and optimized for easy assembly.

The kit comes with detailed instructions on how to build and subsequently program the robot, thereby exposing the students to the basic computing skills essential in STEM. Thus far, the team says preliminary prototypes tested in high schools and colleges have been successful.

In light of a nationwide growth stunt within STEM fields, the sisters in 2011 co-founded STEM Center USA, which encourages youth to develop a broader understanding of STEM through experiential learning.

According to the  U.S. Department of Education, in the past 10 years, California middle school students — one of the demographics for which Pi-Bot is designed — have continually ranked lower than the national average in both math and science. The sisters hope Pi-Bot will be streamlined into classrooms and the home and will reinvigorate confidence and interest in STEM.

“Oftentimes, students shy away from STEM fields with thoughts such as, ‘math is hard’ or ‘programming is too confusing’,” Lavanya said. “All children, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or learning have the right to STEM education and can excel in these disciplines.”

California is currently recognizing National Engineers Week, which acknowledges engineers as fundamental links in converting scientific findings to useful products. Melissa  noted that National Engineers Week demystifies preconceptions about engineers. She hopes the highlighted week will give Pi-Bot traction and, as a complement, make the field of engineering more accessible.

“Engineers aren’t the geeky guys sitting in a cubicle not talking to anybody,” Melissa said. “They’re all of us. The students building the Pi-Bot — those are engineers.”

Contact Angel Jennings and Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected]