Pi-Bot inventors, STEM proselytizers dive into ‘Shark Tank’

Berkeley’s own Lavanya Jawaharlal, a senior in mechanical engineering and ASUC executive vice president, is no stranger to making bold moves. Four years ago, before she was out of high school, she and her engineer sister Melissa founded STEM Center USA to open up access to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math to more diverse students.

Lavanya Jawaharlal demonstrates Pi-Bot at Berkeley’s Girls in Engineering camp. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)

Seeing robotics as an irrestistible force in attracting kids to STEM fields, but cost as a problem, they invented Pi-Bot, a robot kit that sells for far less  than others on the market. Their Kickstarter campaign for Pi-Bot drew more than $100,000, 50 percent more than their goal.

The Southern California-based STEM Center works with kids of all ages designing, building and programming robots. The sisters have launched school programs and sell their own product line, including the Pi-BotThe Technical Alphabet,and the Fiat Lux Wearable Electronics Kit, which goes up on Kickstarter today.

And now, they’re taking the plunge into national television, appearing on ABC’s “Shark Tank” tonight at 9 p.m. The reality show invites budding entrepreneurs to present their ideas before a panel of investors ready to shower them with love — or tear them to bits. Lavanya Jawaharlal is believed to be the first Berkeley student to appear on the show.

“Our little Pi-Bot will (hopefully) be making an appearance too!” the sisters wrote on their Kickstarter blog. Success could mean a big boost for the STEM Center.

Lavanya Jawaharlal got into robotics when her parents, both Ph.D.s in mechanical engineering, pushed her to take a robotics class in high school, she told California Magazine for a story last year. “I was on the robotics team, I was one girl with 17 guys…But once I was on the team, I realized that I really enjoyed it,” she told writer Robert Nizza. “The robot was six feet tall, it had an arm that would throw a basketball.” Showing the robot off at an elementary school left an indelible moment, she said: the kids’ looks of “fascination and glee.” Melissa, who earned her mechanical engineering degree at USC, is an engineer at Raytheon.

Now, along with her studies and work as the STEM Center’s president, Lavanya Jawaharlal still finds time to be active in ASUC’s leadership.

How does she do it all? “I really rely on my bCalendar to take me through my day,” she says. “It’s all about scheduiing.”

After she graduates this spring, she plans to go fulltime at the STEM Center. In just a few years, the center has drawn so many students that it has outgrown its first headquarters in Pomona and doubled its space at a new site in Claremont. A majority of the kids it’s working with are students of color and about half are girls, Jawaharlal says.  

Read more about the Jawaharlals in the Daily Cal.