PI 515: Using technology to break the cycle of poverty

Inside the basement of the Zion Lutheran Church high school kids are playing with Legos for the first time.

That Lego will lead them—if all goes according to plan—towards breaking the cycle of poverty in their family.

The Legos are part of the curriculum for PI 515 (pursuit innovation)—a Des Moines-based non-profit organization that teaches science, technology, education and math (STEM) concepts to underserved junior high and high school students and refugees during the school year. Pi515 uses the Zion Lutheran Church for classes during the week and weekend.

Because of partnerships with Facebook, AT&T, Best Buy, Prairie Meadows, Zion Lutheran Church and more, Pi515 worked with high school students in Central Iowa last school to code, understand robotics and even built a drone.

“We are introducing robotics to kids who have never had Legos before,” PI 515 founder Nancy Mwirotsi says. “Having them learn just the basics. This one boy was just sleeping and dreaming about Legos because he just loved it, and he’s in high school.”

“These are things we take for granted.”

The program is in its third year and has anywhere between 10-20 kids at a class. Mwirotsi offers two classes on Wednesday because it’s an early out day for the Des Moines School District and many others in Central Iowa.

And through its social media presence Mwirotsi is being asked to travel and speak to other communities for the work PI 515 is doing:

A student working on a drone for google anti gravity competition.

Trying to boost economic development

And to think it all started with a dance class.

Mwirotsi says she’s hopeful the kids learn skills that translate into education and jobs that break the cycle of poverty in their family.

“So when we talk in terms of economic diversity, we have to push hard to make sure these kids are being given the tools they need to succeed,” Mwirotsi says. “That makes the state succeed and that way we aren’t recycling poverty.”

But she says adults must be able to recognize that kids are learning these skills.

“If we are able to diversify the work force and bring in diverse conversations, it creates more opportunities for more innovations,” Mwirotsi says. “When companies are not thinking about diversity and inclusion, they are missing out on opportunities to create bigger things for larger group of people.

Mwirotsi asks companies to evaluate themselves on what they are doing for diversity and inclusion.

“Lets see action, are you mentoring a kid? Is a person of color being allowed to present a project? Are you giving them those intentional opportunities?” Mwirotsi asks.

She says two of the older students in the program are considered, “interns” and run the social media accounts. Mwirotsi says this fall she will work with those girls to come up with a business plan to utilize their coding, data entry and website design skills.

But while she has success stories to share her students still face the same barrier: lack of resources. One girl has to sit outside the library after hours so she can use the wifi to do homework.

So Mwirotsi is meeting with Century Link and then the Iowa Legislature next session to see what can be done.

“We still have a large population of kids who don’t have internet access.”

(From left) Anne Roth, Brad Dwyer and Nancy Mwirotsi hold a check Monday afternoon at Gravitate. Hatchlings held a fundraiser in June to raise money for Pi 515.

The power of a community

So in June of 2017 Brad Dwyer, founder of Hatchlings Inc., started a fundraiser on Facebook to raise money for the organization.

Dwyer said he wanted to help raise some funding so the program could focus more on helping the youth, rather than chasing money.

Nearly 200 people donated.

“Raising money for PI 515 so they can focus more time on doing what they’re best at made a lot of sense,” Dwyer said. “PI 515 is doing awesome work. It hits on a whole bunch of disparate areas of need that are all really important: helping refugees, empowering minority communities, and STEM.”

$5,304 was donated and Hatchlings matched $5,000. Dwyer ran an in-game event through which we also donated $2,342. Bringing the total to $12,646.

“It’s really cool having such a big platform to leverage,” Dwyer says. “We have millions of players spanning over 200 countries and all 50 states. Being able to bring that many people together to make a difference has been really rewarding; especially when we can make an impact in our local community.”