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A piece of the PiE: MVHS grad part of nonprofit aimed at helping teens

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Courtesy of Jose Valera
Students take part in a fall 2019 robotics competition with Pioneers in Engineering (PiE), a nonprofit that offers STEM-focused mentorship and education to Bay Area high-schoolers.

Living in Silicon Valley, it may be difficult to imagine not having access to computers, coding and robotics. However, that is the reality for many high schoolers in the Bay Area – one that a UC Berkeley-based nonprofit with a local high school graduate on its board aims to change.

Pioneers in Engineering (PiE), a nonprofit, independent organization run by Cal students, offers STEM-focused mentorship and education to high school students throughout the region.

“This is a program that a lot of these high schools wouldn’t necessarily have access to because we’d be out of their price range,” said board member James Hulett, a 2016 graduate of Mountain View High School. “The fact that we’re able to get them engaged in robotics and get them interested in engineering, computer science and that sort of stuff is really nice.”

Jose Valera, PiE’s public relations director, added that the group’s main efforts focus on bridging the gap for low-income students and providing them with the same experiences other Bay Area students have.

“We know that the Bay Area is a tech hub, but we also know that there are a large amount of students who can’t participate in expensive robotics competitions,” Valera said. “So we try to focus on schools that don’t have the money to fund these programs, that don’t have computer science classes or robotics competitions.”

Hulett joined PiE during his freshman year at UC Berkeley, splitting his time between the software and education teams over the course of his undergraduate studies.

Now starting his graduate studies in theoretical computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Mountain View native has taken a more managerial role in PiE as a board member. He handles the finances and logistics for the organization’s major event – an eight-week spring robotics competition – and ensures that it remains a low-cost option for schools with fewer computer science and robotics opportunities to participate in.

‘World Tour’ challenge

This year’s competition, which kicked off March 6, is significantly different from other robotics competitions PiE has organized, according to members. Due to the pandemic, PiE staff spent months brainstorming and developing ways to conduct the competition remotely, while still maintaining the reduced $100 cost and preserving the crucial components of having the students design, build, test and control the robots.

But participating teams aren’t the only ones designing contraptions. Although the teams aren’t working together in person – instead meeting and creating their bots over video calls and text messages – PiE organizers are putting together physical obstacle courses on the UC Berkeley campus. They also are creating the team-designed robots onsite. The teams will remotely drive them through the obstacle courses in real-time during the final competition May 1.

In an effort to make the competition more exciting and relatable for the teams, Valera said the theme of this year’s competition is “World Tour.” The four Mario Kart video game-inspired biomes – city, forest, desert and tundra – are each equipped with their own tasks and challenges the robots will perform.

The pandemic threw PiE, along with the rest of the world, into a completely unfamiliar biome, but like the students participating in the competition, PiE staff seem to be navigating their way past the obstacles and overcoming the challenges thrown at them.

For more information on PiE, email [email protected] or visit pioneers.berkeley.edu.

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