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Sisters build robot to make engineering accessible to all

July 29, 2015
Sisters and business partners create affordable Pi-Bot to get more children interested in engineering careers.

Melissa and Lavanya Jawaharlal were always more curious than other kids. When their friends were playing with dolls, they were taking apart every toy they owned to figure out how they worked. 

When they got older, they wanted to help other young people develop the same passion and enthusiasm they have for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). After surveying the market, they noticed that most introductory robotics kits were either too hard or too easy, and far too expensive. They decided to build a better robot themselves, and named it after the Greek letter, Pi. 

"My sister and I created the Pi-Bot to make robotics and engineering more accessible to students everywhere," Lavanya Jawaharlal told NBC News. "The Pi-Bot allows users to explore various types of engineering including mechanical, electrical, and software. We believe a comprehensive experience is vital for students to determine which aspects they are most interested in."

The Pi-Bot kit includes everything a child would need to jump-start an interest in robotics. A gearbox, motors, sensors, an Arduino-compatible controller called the STEM Board, wires, tools and a novel Pi-shaped chassis all come standard in the package. The sisters say that the kit can help teach how to assemble gears, program software and use real-world electronics components all at an affordable price of $99.

Last year, Melissa and Lavanya raised almost $140,000 on a Kickstarter campaign to create 1000 initial Pi-Bot kits. Since then, the Jawaharlals have received orders from 46 countries for students in middle schools, high schools and universities and has been adopted California State Polytechnic University Pomona's Introduction to Engineering Courses and UC Berkeley's Girls in Engineering Program. It was also featured in a workshop at the American Society of Engineering Education Conference.