Melissa Jawaharlal, is passionate about robotics. So much so that the 21-year-old Indian-origin engineer in the US feels robotics is the way to generate interest of students in science and technology. She along with with her 19-year-old sister Lavanya has developed Pi-Bot -- a do-it-yourself kit to build a robot. The price of Pi-Bot is $75, far less than other prominent school-level kits like Tetrix set from Lego which retails at $599.95 and Vex, whose kits start at $399.99.
With affordable kits, Melissa wants more students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The sisters run a robotics education firm, STEM Center in the US and India. Melissa Jawaharlal spoke to Krishna Bahirwani in an interview.
What is your background in engineering? Can you name some interesting engineering or robotics projects you have worked on?
I have a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC). I started my first engineering project as a high school student. I led a team of 12 students to build a 'coconut tree climbing device' for harvesting coconuts robotically via remote. We presented our work at MIT. In my first two years of college I worked at the Information Sciences Institute of USC and my work is now on two currently orbiting satellites. I have also contracted for the US Air Force and worked at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.
How did you develop an interest in robotics? How did it lead to Pi-Bot and STEM Center?
I love technology and engineering. It is all around us from the cars we drive in to the homes we live in. My passion is getting kids excited about STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields and I believe robotics gives the perfect hands-on experience to integrate all the STEM fields.
STEM Center USA uses a variety of robotics platforms to offers students a diversity of experiences and maintain their interest by learning new tools and new languages. The Pi-Bot fills the much needed gap for an affordable, meaningful robotics experience for middle school kids and up.
On an average, how long will it take a mid/high schooler to build the Pi-Bot?
The experience of assembling the Pi-Bot is broken into segments. We recommend at least 10 hours (two half-day segments) for the overall introductory experience. This will include students getting introduced to bread boarding and circuitry, assembling the gearbox, assembling the main portions of the chassis, introduction to motor control, introduction to programming, attaching sensors, programming sensors, etc. Programming further can go on for a continuous time period dependent upon interest. However, the basic construction of the robot itself is about two hours, not including programming.
What comes after the Pi-Bot for you?
We are currently working on further developing our K-12 programme and expanding our Robotics Creativity Center in South California. We also have a couple of other product ideas lined up as well to be hopefully released this year.
You already have STEM Center in Chennai and Madurai, do you plan to expand in India?