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Pi515: STEM programming fueled with beer and Jenga


The first attempt at fundraising for Pi515 combined oversized Jenga blocks, food and beer.

Proceeds from the Jumbo Jenga Tournament went towards supporting the Des Moines-based nonprofit so it can continue offering at-risk students computer science, coding and STEM programming.

Over 100 people attended the event Thursday night at Fox Brewing in West Des Moines; $15,000 was raised.

Before the tournament, Nancy Mwirotsi—founder of Pi515—said roughly 200 students a year from Des Moines North, Hoover, Lincoln and Southeast Polk High Schools receive free STEM education classes year-round through Pi515.

The majority of students Pi515 works with are high school girls and refugee students. The curriculum includes:

  • Robotics
  • App/Web development
  • Drones
  • College Prep/Financial Literacy
  • Virtual Reality
  • Entrepreneur

Mwirotsi said the students she works with are, “Aggressive” but that, “Nobody is giving them opportunities to succeed.”

So she started the nonprofit to give them those opportunities. The last two years students from Pi515 received over $200,000 in college scholarships in STEM education.

“There are a ton of nonprofits which is fantastic but this one is really concentrating on the lack of diversity within the tech fields,” Pi515 board member and event organizer Anne Roth said. “And it serves a really unique community in that we work with refugee students that are a lot of times facing barriers that many students aren’t facing.

Even if you are a minority and American born.”

Goals for 2018

Because of the technology Pi515 has access to through its partnerships, they will have a mobile STEM lab this school year.

“Our goal is to make sure we introduce 100 new students to build a website, market it and learn to sell things through their websites,” Mwirotsi. “For a child who does not have a computer at home, building their first website is a fast way to get them into technology.”

Mwirotsi said Pi515 can provide the technology and she’s looking for tech companies to help teach classes to the students.

“If we give these kids an opportunity out of poverty, we are going to stop this very big problem of recycling poverty,” Mwirotsi told the crowd. “If you know a child somewhere or if you have a club somewhere and do not have STEM equipment, please call us. We have some amazing equipment that everyone should take advantage of.

“Some of these kids have never seen a robot…and they need to see these because that’s the future.”


Roth said she hopes to make the Jumbo Jenga Tournament an annual event.

“It feels great to know there’s a grassroots movement about it,” Roth says. “Involving local people makes it much more of a home issue. A lot of our students are going to graduate and live here because their families live here.

Pi515: STEM programming fueled with beer and Jenga | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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