Local startup KEF Robotics provides mentorship and STEM learning to Obama Academy students
Photos above and below of OARC students courtesy of Arhan Badjatia.
Fraser Kitchell is an adventurer who once sailed a boat from Seattle to Alaska. But his greatest expedition occurred closer to home: Kitchell and his business partners Kerry Snyder and Eric Amoroso are boldly guiding kids into the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Since 2019, the founders of Larimer-based tech start-up KEF Robotics have mentored students at Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, even offering paid internships that give teenagers experience in all aspects of the industry. They’re fostering opportunities for youth so the next generation can thrive within their field.
“We wanted to try to help people who didn’t have access to STEM-based learning,” says Kitchell, a Seattle native and Carnegie Mellon University graduate. “Robotics isn’t very diverse. For people outside the industry, it’s hard to get into.”
Each Monday after school, between 15 and 20 students attend the Obama Academy Robotics Club (OARC) meeting. While snacking on pizza, they build Rube Goldberg-type machines or tinker with Edison kits — small, educational robots that are expandable, reusable and equipped with programmable sensors that allow them to perform simple tasks.
OARC members engineer the machines to navigate mazes and pick up ping pong balls. Though the bots are basic, the hands-on learning experience is preparing kids for a complex industry.
“It’s one of the most challenging disciplines,” Kitchell says. “There are a lot of layers to it and there are parts that are intimidating.”
Founded in 2018, KEF Robotics specializes in drone vision software that allows machines to detect obstacles like power lines and trees, and fly around them. While employees spend lot of time problem-solving on computers inside their Hamilton Avenue headquarters, they also have access to test ranges around the country.
In the future, they hope to apply their technology to commercial planes to make air travel safer, cheaper and more accessible.
By integrating youth engagement into their mission (even during the height of the pandemic, when OARC meetings were conducted virtually), KEF Robotics is investing in the local community … and the future.
Seniors Arhan Badjatia and Aastha Singh have served as co-presidents and co-founders of OARC, and both are currently KEF Robotics interns. They both got bit by the robotics bug in their sophomore year. For Singh, this fits into her interests in engineering. Although more academically focused on economics and politics, the education Badjatia has received from his mentors has given him an entirely new skill set and a data-driven way of thinking.
“In essence, OARC was managed as a startup under Fraser’s guidance and leadership,” Badjatia says. “To raise funds, he helped us create a pitch deck to promote OARC and contacted corporations such as Facebook’s Oculus branch and Bosch. This, along with Fraser donating a portion of his own earnings as a summer instructor for Startable Pittsburgh, helped us raise over $5,300.”
Kitchell and his team at KEF have also served as instructors for OARC and helped create a curriculum that kept learning going even when the pandemic disrupted in-person schooling.
Students interested in a robotics internship at KEF don’t need any programming skills, Kitchell says, but they must be self-directed, tenacious and possess a desire to learn.
Kitchell has met many kids at Obama Academy who fit that description: “They strengthen the belief I have that people are very capable, even when they don’t know a lot about a subject,” he says. “We love having young people around. It’s a nice break from your day when a kid asks you a question and you go to a whiteboard and break it down together. I go to robotics club meetings and it’s the best part of my week. It’s so fun and so worth it.”