PiE wins big

Pioneers in Engineering (PiE) director Baladitya Yellapragada accepts a $10,000 check after PiE won the “Students with Drive” contest sponsored by Zipcar and Ford. (Photo courtesy PiE)Pioneers in Engineering (PiE) director Baladitya Yellapragada accepts a $10,000 check after PiE won the “Students with Drive” contest sponsored by Zipcar and Ford. (Photo by PiE)Pioneers in Engineering (PiE) is a Berkeley student group that runs a mentorship program to engage teenagers in science and technology. April was a busy month for PiE. They won $25,000 in a national competition sponsored by Ford and Zipcar. Then, only days after an event held on campus to celebrate that big win, PiE held a competition of their own—they hosted a robotics challenge game for two dozen high school teams.

Founded in 2008, PiE was conceived by a group of Berkeley students who wanted to make STEM education more engaging and interactive. They came up with the idea of training mentors to teach Bay Area high school students how to build robots. “It started with 10 volunteers meeting in someone’s dorm room,” says Samuel Fung, second-year mechanical engineering student and PiE’s instructional support lead. “They were trying to do outreach to 12 local schools.”

It turns out that the founders were right—everybody loves building robots. Robotics projects combine multiple technical disciplines, such as mechanical and electrical engineering as well as computer science. The projects also teach other valuable skills like teamwork, leadership and project management. In only five years, PiE has grown to more than 150 members and 24 partnerships with high schools.

Robots competing in the annual competition held by Pioneers in Engineering. (Photo courtesy PiE)Robots competing in the annual competition held by Pioneers in Engineering. (Photo by PiE)Inside PiE’s office, which is tucked away in the northern corner of O’Brien Hall, students solder circuit boards and fabricate parts. Strewn about are various projects in different phases of construction: a robot that can catapult a tennis ball, a sophisticated goal-tracking system and a series of microcontrollers tacked down on cardboard for testing.

The success of the organization can be attributed to a double-barrelled approach. First, building robot parts and kits gives Berkeley students the opportunity to practice technical skills. Second, PiE staff also recruit and train other Berkeley students, including non-engineers, to become mentors. No robotic experience of any kind is required. “Sometimes the best mentors aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable,” says Fung. “We teach them how to build the kit, to put all of the wires together in the kit and even a little bit on how to program the robot, so the mentors are able to have a complete driving robot in the first four weeks.”

Last fall, PiE entered “Students with Drive,” a national competition sponsored by Ford and Zipcar. PiE won $5,500 in Zipcar credits, a resource they immediately put to work shuttling mentors back and forth to local schools. The win also put them in the running for a $25,000 grand prize consisting of $5,000 additional Zipcar credits, $10,000 to buy materials and supplies for the robot kits and another $10,000 for Berkeley Engineering’s annual fund.

For the grand prize, PiE competed against other educational and service organizations, many of which have national followings. In order to win, PiE created a compelling YouTube video explaining their work and then mobilized PiE supporters to vote for them in a social media campaign.

The judges at Zipcar said they were impressed by the uniqueness of PiE’s programs and saw that the Zipcar credits PiE won in the fall allowed their members to carry out their mentoring duties. On April 8, Zipcar announced that PiE was this year’s grand prize winner.

UC Berkeley PiE mentors and the high school students they work with meet on campus to discuss the annual robotics competition. (Photo courtesy PiE)UC Berkeley PiE mentors and the high school students they work with meet on campus to discuss the annual robotics competition. (Photo by PiE)“I like that they are a student group that didn’t get their start from a larger umbrella organization,” says Austin Marshburn, Zipcar’s organizer of the “Students with Drive” contest. “It’s pretty cool that it’s a Berkeley-based group that recruits their own members and then goes out and does something special in the community.”

The PiE-centered community was on full display over the weekend of April 27 and 28, when the group held their annual robotics competition at the Lawrence Hall of Science. Oakland Tech and Nea Learning Center, a charter school in Alameda, shared the honor of winning this year.

Despite the demonstration of technical skills over the weekend, PiE’s meta-mission is less tangible.

“The most important thing that we want is for students to become interested in engineering,” Fung says.  “They may not have any experience, but they will realize that they can do engineering, they can be creative and they can think of solutions to problems.”