Alumna strives to bring students tech materials

In our current tech-savvy, gadget-driven age, there has never been a more important time to learn how to build and create groundbreaking innovations. USC Mechanical Engineering alum Melissa Jawaharlal held a similar sentiment when she launched a campaign earlier this month to raise money and support for Pi Bot — a uniquely designed, affordable, complete robotics kit for anyone interested in building and programming robots, according to her Kickstarter.

“What happens today is any students in 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade or older, who are interested in learning about robotics or programming, simply does not have any kit out there that they can get excited about,” Jawaharlal said. “We’ve put together a complete robot kit that allows students of all ages and backgrounds to get introduced to robotics, at an introductory level and also for hobbyists.”

Jawaharlal began working in K-12 educational outreach when she and her sister, Lavanya, who is a student at University of California, Berkeley, founded STEM Center USA in 2011, a creative center that provides students with hands-on opportunities to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The way it works is we have after-school programs and we have kids coming into our center once a week to practice their creativity,” Jawaharlal said. “It is amazing. They come in for an hour and a half, they program and they have a blast. We use all sorts of cool stuff to develop our curriculum … We came up with the project in conjunction with our work with the kids.”

One of the criticisms of the engineering field today is that men largely outnumber women — something noted by companies such as GoldieBlox, which aims to provide construction toys for young girls as seen in their gone-viral commercials — and Jawaharlal said she agrees with such claims.

“Absolutely there’s a gap — anyone who tells you otherwise is straight-up lying,” Jawaharlal said. “USC is very fortunate in having over 30 percent women in the engineering field in education. That being said, if you look at fields like mechanical engineering countrywide, that’s typically less than 5 percent women. I currently work at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems — I’m one of the few women out there. In the classrooms that I teach robotics in, already in elementary school, girls are typically averse to math and sciences fields because that’s a boy’s field, or that’s something that only nerdy guys do. There is a major gap and that is something that is very near and dear to my heart as a woman in engineering.”

And though some robotics kits do exist in the market today, Jawaharlal said they are either too expensive or aren’t properly conducive to the learning experience.

“There’s a lot of really great programs out there, but a lot of them have students working in teams of 10 or more,” Jawaharlal said. “One of the issues that I see with that is that students don’t get to touch everything. So in a project with 10 students that has a cool robot, you might only be doing mechanical or only doing programming, but that’s not a way to get a taste of everything, so that you can figure out what kind of career you want.”

Jawaharlal said that her background at USC helped her with this campaign, providing a system of support and encouragement to follow her passion. In addition to starting the STEM Center, Jawaharlal worked as a resident adviser and at the Information Sciences Institute, a research institute affiliated with Viterbi. She said that being involved with these organizations influenced her to take on the role of a mentor for younger students.

“USC has been so supportive in everything I’ve done,” Jawaharlal said. “[At the Informational Sciences Institute], I had professors supporting me, I had organizations supporting me and everyone drilled me to pursue what I was excited about. I had a lot of really great mentors and people who were instrumental in keeping me in that field and keeping me excited about what I do. One of my missions was using that mentorship and providing that for more students. I’ve been working in outreach and volunteering activities pretty much all my life, and as I got more and more excited about engineering, I wanted to make sure I shared that.”

Despite having little to no experience in professional fundraising, Jawaharlal’s online campaign has 624 backers with more than $55,000 pledged at the time of publication. With a goal of $70,000 and just 13 days to go, the campaign is in its final stretch.

“We went to Kickstarter … because we hoped we would be able to get a certain amount of publicity, reach people who exactly were interested in our products, as well as just jump right into manufacturing,” Jawaharlal said. “[It] allows you to reach out directly to your customers right away — our customers being parents, educators and students who are interested on their own.”

The demographic make-up of these customers, however, did take Jawaharlal by surprise.

“We anticipated a lot of parents and educators initially, but we’ve seen a lot of retirees, people who are leaving the industry now and they’re 60, 70 years old,” Jawaharlal said.

But no matter who is backing the venture, Jawaharlal said that she couldn’t be more appreciative of the support she has received.

“These people are people who believe in you, people who want to see you succeed, people who love your ideas,” Jawaharlal said. “Six hundred and twenty people worldwide — we have interest from all over the world — are excited about what you’re doing.”

And though Pi Bot might seem like a tool used exclusively by engineering majors or those with extensive experience in the field, Jawaharlal said she wanted to emphasize that the project is more about making this type of technology available to all students, at all levels.

“We don’t expect every single one of the students that we work with to become engineers one day, but the idea that they should have the confidence and interest, should they think that that is a career for them, is huge,” Jawaharlal said.