Sisters Bet Robotics in Schools Will Plant Seeds for STEM Careers

They've developed a robot-building kit that they want to sell to schools

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Wed, February 26, 2014

IDG News Service (New York Bureau) — Can robots steer students towards careers in science and technology? Melissa Jawaharlal thinks so and she's built a robotics kit to prove it.

The 21-year-old mechanical engineer, who has made robots since the seventh grade, developed the kit with her sister, Lavanya, who is 19. They called it Pi-Bot because its chassis is shaped like the Greek letter Pi.

According to Jawaharlal, a graduate of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, building robots as a student in school gave her the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills needed to pursue a career in engineering.

Through Pi-Bot, Jawaharlal wants to plant the seeds for more students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The sisters have initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise US$70,000 to build and commercially sell Pi-Bot kits to schools. They run a robotics education firm, STEM Center USA, in Pomona, California.

"Robotics is a neat way to bring it all together," Jawaharlal said of the skills that using robots can help students to develop. "Pi-Bot is affordable, individualized, and most of all, exciting for students to build and program."

Major IT companies have also started investing in robotics. Google has acquired a handful of robotics companies recently, while Amazon paid US$775 million for Kiva Systems and CEO Jeff Bezos floated the idea of using flying drones to deliver packages.

Such moves have occurred at the same time as a major public-policy push has brought STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education to the fore.

Hands-on science programs like robotics can positively influence a student's academic pursuit of STEM well beyond high school, said Barbara McAllister, director of strategic initiatives and planning at Intel.

"I think it's a great idea and I'm rooting for them to be wildly successful. Something magical happens when you allow students to create and make stuff. Students are naturally curious and when you have their interest, education happens," McAllister said.

Only one in 10 U.S. high-school graduates indicated interest in STEM careers, according to a study released earlier this month by testing organization ACT.

Women are under-represented in STEM fields, so female role models in those male-dominanted fields would have a profound effect, said Alicia Gibb, a New York-based hardware developer who developed Pathosbot, a roller skating robot.

"It is really important for classrooms to have women to look up to as role models for who can build robots and be engineers," Gibb said.

Offering physical computing experiences in classrooms will prepare students for dealing with how pervasive computing and Internet services will become in the next decade, said Anthony Mullen, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

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