Siemens gift supports University of California STEM outreach to underserved communities

Collage of three photos: Two middle school-aged girls sit on a classroom floor with markers and construction paper; a person with long dark hair, glasses and a bright blue CITRIS shirt stands over a young person at a laptop with a drone in front of it, pointing at their screen, with several other people looking at laptops at the same table; a group of seven people in casual clothes stand in a field, with one person piloting the drone visible above them and another person typing on a laptop set on a stack of crates.

The donation to CITRIS — an ‘easy decision’ thanks to a long and successful collaboration, say partners at Siemens — helped bring technical and leadership skills training to middle school, high school and college students across Northern California.

In late 2021, multinational technology company Siemens donated $75,000 to the Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS), a California Institute for Science and Innovation headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley. The funding had a broad yet specific goal: to help develop the next generation of engineers by supporting underserved communities. 

The gift was built on six years of strong collaborations between Siemens and CITRIS on a variety of projects, such as research on robotic grasping led by Ken Goldberg, director of the CITRIS People and Robots (CPAR) initiative.

“We view universities not just as entities where we do research or recruitment, but as part of an ecosystem that does work we can support,” said Arturo Pizano, program manager of university collaborations at Siemens. “Working with CITRIS is a way for us to have more impact in these spaces because it is already invested in these programs.

“It was an easy decision to choose CITRIS versus doing something from scratch or finding a different partner.”

In line with CITRIS’s mission to catalyze information technology solutions in the interest of society, the funding was distributed evenly across three CITRIS campuses — UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz — and given to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach and education programs that directly support women and other historically underrepresented identities in STEM industries. 

It was an easy decision to choose CITRIS versus doing something from scratch or finding a different partner.

ARTURO PIZANO, program manager of university collaborations, SIEMENS

All three of these University of California campuses are recognized as minority-serving institutions by the U.S. Department of Education, with UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz classified as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and UC Davis identified as an emerging HSI. UC Davis and UC Merced also directly serve California’s Central Valley, which historically has high poverty and low college graduation rates.

UC Davis: Building a pipeline for women in STEM with robotics camps

The UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education (C-STEM) seeks to transform math and tech pedagogy through integrated learning, which connects concepts across subjects and curricula. Among the C-STEM Center’s primary objectives is addressing the disparity in academic performance of students traditionally underrepresented in STEM, referred to in education as the “achievement gap.” 

The center’s flagship offerings include a series of summer camps for middle and high school girls that teach engineering and technology concepts through hands-on activities and peer mentorship.

The one-week Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp introduces seventh and eighth grade girls to engineering, programming and film production. Each camp participant is given access to a computer with a C/C++ interpreter and a reconfigurable modular robot called a Linkbot, as well as a virtual Linkbot in simulation programs to help them practice coding without worrying about hardware.

A middle school-aged girl wearing a GIRL Camp t-shirt stand with her hands on her hips in a computer lab. In the background, several other girls sit at computers.
A UC Davis C-STEM Center GIRL Camp attendee strikes a pose in the computer lab.

“We have two high school students as assistant coaches and two college students as coaches,” said Harry H. Cheng, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the director of the UC Davis C-STEM Center. “These young women serve as peer mentors and inspirations to pursue STEM, especially on how to fight the barrier to entry as women.”

The GIRL+ Camp, also a week long, teaches 10th, 11th and 12th grade girls a sensor-based robotics curriculum using Linkbots and the popular Arduino open-source electronics platform.

Attendance is free for participants of both the GIRL and GIRL+ camps, and sites are located across Northern California. Campers visit university research labs, interact with female guest speakers working in STEM and make short videos about their projects to compete in a robotics-themed video competition.

A middle-school age girl with glasses is sitting, smiling at the camera. Behind her is a computer monitor showing graphical programming software, with a small Linkbot robot on the table between monitor and keyboard.
A camper at a UC Davis C-STEM Center GIRL Camp shows off her Linkbot code.

The Siemens funding enabled the six 2022 UC Davis camps to compensate the college students hired as peer mentors, and to make the curriculum more friendly to students who are coding for the first time.

“The GIRL and GIRL+ camps are excellent programs to provide a pipeline to improve college applications from underrepresented groups,” said Bahram Ravani, former faculty director of CITRIS at UC Davis and current chair of the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

UC Merced: Using robots and drones as a gateway to STEM careers

The newest University of California campus, UC Merced, is nestled in the San Joaquin Valley and well situated to serve as a tech education hub for the region. 

The university has established successful agricultural technology and geomatics, or geographical surveying, research programs. Both industry sectors will increasingly depend on a workforce that uses uncrewed aerial systems, also known as UASs, UAVs or drones, said Leigh Bernacchi, executive director of CITRIS at UC Merced.

“The Central Valley has such a diverse landscape — rivers, grasslands, large amounts of agriculture — so there’s many different places where drones can be applied,” said Fatima Gamiño, a CITRIS junior aviation specialist and recent UC Merced alumna. “This gives us a lot of room for interdisciplinary research and outreach.”

Paralleling last year’s launch of the cross-campus CITRIS Aviation initiative, the CITRIS at UC Merced team developed a drone outreach and training curriculum called FLY CITRIS. This new program, and the NexTech Robotics program the team has delivered since 2015, were supported by the funding from Siemens. 

We would not have FLY CITRIS without Siemens. The funding allowed us to fill a crucial niche in our region.

Leigh Bernacchi, Executive Director of CITRIS at UC Merced

FLY CITRIS aims to get students of all ages excited about drone technology by holding interactive activities. Because it was created amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is flexible on how it presents its material, ready to soar anytime or anywhere from a short stint in a school gymnasium to a day out at the Tri-Valley Innovation Fair to a weeklong spot at the UC Merced Bobcat Summer STEM Academy.

“Everyone wants to fly — it’s a shared desire for humans,” Bernacchi said. “Drones are a gateway to feeling that experience, and anyone can fly them.

“We would not have FLY CITRIS without Siemens,” she said. “We needed 20 laptops, 10 drones and controllers, extra batteries and extra propellers. We also needed the amazing undergraduate engineering student staff to connect curriculum and higher education. The FLY educators are compensated to teach and to get their Remote Pilot Certificates. The funding allowed us to execute this and fill a crucial niche in our region.”

A college-age person kneels, holding a small drone, next to an elementary school-aged boy who is typing on a laptop.
A UC Merced FLY CITRIS educator explains to a young attendee at the Tri-Valley Innovation Fair attendee how computer code can program drones to fly. Photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced

The UC Merced undergraduate students hired to launch FLY CITRIS also run the NexTech Robotics program.

NexTech is offered through in-class and extracurricular lessons at Merced middle schools, where the students learn teamwork and engineering concepts from their college-age “near-peers” by assembling and coding a robot and running competitive courses.

Being able to give back to the students and seeing them light up when they understand a topic is something that gives me joy.

Peter Sou, UC Merced Graduate and NexTech Robotics Educator

The program brings robotics concepts, sensor technology and Python programming to the middle schoolers without additional expenses for their families. 

“I teach because of the opportunities that I wasn’t given growing up,” said Peter Sou, a 2022 UC Merced graduate and former NexTech educator. “Being able to give back to the students and seeing them light up when they understand a topic is something that gives me joy and is really rewarding.”

UC Santa Cruz: Investing in inclusivity and equity with drone pilot training

The UC Santa Cruz CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research (CIDER) brings together students, researchers, academic institutions and aviation companies, with the goals of building a more diverse and inclusive drone workforce and advancing innovation in UAS technology through educational programs and research partnerships. 

“Drones are now being used to capture high-resolution imagery in places that we couldn’t go before, as well as in infrastructure projects like bridge monitoring and inspection of wind turbines,” said Justin Cummings, co-founder and associate director of CIDER, who holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with an emphasis in environmental studies. “Our mission is to make this technology more commonplace and accessible to people.”

Toward that end, the CIDER team created a drone pilot training program, currently available to UC Santa Cruz students, with plans to expand to nearby Hartnell College and beyond.

The 18 undergraduates selected for the inaugural 2022 program received 10 weeks of practical flight training, study materials for the FAA Part 107 commercial drone pilot certification exam, and an introduction to mission planning and data analysis software such as Drone Deploy and ArcGIS. 

A photo from high in the air of about 14 people standing in a field, with a table holding computers in one corner and two orange targets several feet away.
Members of the UC Santa Cruz CIDER Pilot Training Program take a high-flying selfie from a drone.

CIDER covered the $175 cost for their license exam, and the students who completed the course were also given a $600 stipend — made possible by the Siemens gift.

The pilot training program earned overwhelmingly positive feedback from this first cohort, with 13 students receiving their drone pilot’s certificate and seven students recruited for internships or employment with CIDER industry partners.

CIDER also supports DroneCamp, a weeklong symposium organized by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources; UC Merced; UC Santa Cruz; California State University, Monterey Bay; and the Monterey Bay Drone, Automation and Robotics Technology (DART) initiative. The program is open to any students, researchers or community members interested in drone technology, from complete novices who have never flown a drone before to experienced flyers looking to learn advanced data processing techniques. 

If we really care about being inclusive, and the redistribution of wealth across people who have historically been experiencing poverty, we need to invest in them.

Justin Cummings, Associate Director, CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research

This summer, DroneCamp saw 80 in-person participants and 350 remote viewers, with tickets selling out the week that registration opened. Scholarships were given to students who demonstrated financial need, largely possible with funding from Siemens.

“Aviation as a field is predominantly white and male,” said Cummings. “If we really care about being inclusive, and the redistribution of wealth across people who have historically been experiencing poverty, we need to invest in them.

“The more that we can support them by providing the training and money they need to enter tech fields, the higher likelihood that we can uplift people from these underserved communities.”

Fueling innovation with diversity of thought

The Siemens gift was the first unrestricted donation to CITRIS from a partner organization with the express purpose of developing the STEM workforce in historically underrepresented communities.

Innovation does not come from monolithic thought — it comes from diverse and creative ideas flowing from the minds of a diverse workforce.

Pushkar P. Apte, Director of Strategic Initiatives, CITRIS and the Banatao institute

However, CITRIS’s strengths in these realms are well established, from addressing the challenges faced by women and other underincluded identities in engineering and computer science through the EDGE in Tech Initiative, to enriching the technical and entrepreneurial education of UC students through multicampus efforts such as the CITRIS Foundry, CITRIS Tech for Social Good and the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program.

“We are grateful for this augmentation of our relationship with Siemens, beyond the traditional research partnership,” said Costas Spanos, director of CITRIS and the Banatao Institute and Andrew S. Grove Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley. “It demonstrates Siemens’s commitment to providing opportunities for those who may not have had access to such technical training and to building more equitable pathways into high-performing tech careers.” 

And, as Arturo Pizano explains, Siemens’s motivation to cultivate a diverse tech workforce is deep-rooted as well. 

“We just turned 175 years old. Siemens has been around for such a long time because we have always had products that help society as a whole,” he said. “We’re interested in the issues that affect society, so we want to support programs that show what Siemens is about in a social perspective.”

“We are extremely grateful to Siemens for this kind gift serving underserved communities to promote innovation and diversity,” said Pushkar P. Apte, CITRIS’s director of strategic initiatives. “Innovation is the lifeblood of the high-tech industry, and it does not come from monolithic thought — it comes from diverse and creative ideas flowing from the minds of a diverse workforce.” 

Top images, from left: 1) Participants in a UC Davis C-STEM Center GIRL Camp customize their Linkbots. 2) A UC Merced FLY CITRIS educator instructs a group of Tri-Valley Innovation Fair attendees on how to program their drones. Photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced. 3) Members of the UC Santa Cruz CIDER Pilot Training Program log some drone flight hours.