PiE brings robotics to budding young engineers

Students ready their robot for the PiErate Prospectors competition. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally and Hanna Juehan Ye)

About 300 Bay Area high school students gathered at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science over the weekend to pit the robots they had built against one another.

The 2016 PiE Robotics Competition Game was hosted by Pioneers in Engineering (PiE), a Berkeley student mentorship program that promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education among kids who are underrepresented in the field or are underprivileged.

The competition, called “PiErate Prospectors,” was the culmination of a full semester of work, which brought the Berkeley student mentors and their assigned high school teams together to build robots.

“Programs like these are really important because it helps kids realize their passion,” says Scott Numamoto, a Berkeley freshman majoring in electrical engineering and computer sciences and the competition’s coordinator. “We make a difference in helping these students, so that someday, maybe, they too can be a Berkeley student.”

PiE was established at Berkeley in 2009, and began by serving six partner high schools. The program now involves 25 high schools and almost 100 Berkeley student mentors. Mentors travel as far as Hayward and South San Francisco twice a week to mentor their teams.

“These Berkeley mentors are really helpful. They are super nice. They help us, but they don’t do it for us,” says Elizabeth, a high school junior and two-time PiE participant who took part in the competition.

Besides providing guidance and mentorship, PiE organizes all aspects of the competition, including developing off-the-shelf robotics kits for the teams and manufacturing some key parts throughout the school year.

For the last three years, PiE alumni have administered a scholarship program to help support the participants’ higher education in STEM. Twenty-six professionals in STEM fields also volunteered their time as judges for the robotics competition.

The two-day event ended with an award ceremony recognizing all competition finalists, distinguished scholarship recipients and outstanding student mentors. Head-Royce School (Oakland), Miramonte High School (Orinda) and Balboa High School (San Francisco) were the champions of this year’s final competition.