How BirdBrain Technologies gets kids into STEM with the help of a Hummingbird, Finch and Owlet
Founder Tom Lauwers wants to encourage creativity one robotics kit at a time. Here’s how the Pittsburgh edtech company has grown since its 2010 founding.
At the first-ever Discovery Day event held last year, educators told Technical.ly that the best way to get students excited about STEM was to show them the robots. In Pittsburgh, one edtech company has been doing just that for 13 years.
BirdBrain Technologies is an East End-based company that offers hands-on robotics kits to K-12 schools. While STEM curriculum is becoming more commonplace across the country for schools seeking to prepare students for a world where computer science and robotics skills will be in high demand, BirdBrain Technologies’ approach is to help students better understand subjects such as math while inspiring them to make their own creative inventions.
BirdBrain Technologies CEO and founder Tom Lauwers told Technical.ly that back in 2010, when he was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, he founded the company because in his studies, he’d been trying to find the most useful applications for robotics. What he ultimately settled on was using robotics to help students meet educational goals, and BirdBrain Technologies was born.
“It often feels like trying to change anything in education is like trying to change an ocean liner by pushing on it with the pinky or something, meaning it’s difficult,” Lauwers said. “But that is ultimately what we’re trying to do or help teachers do in some small way, through our tools.”
The products BirdBrain Technologies offers include its Hummingbird Kit, Finch Robot and Owlet Math Tools — yes, all bird themed. Whether it’s fractions, coding or engineering, these products have different learning focuses and age ranges they’re best suited for. Additionally, Lauwers said, although the company’s products are intended for students, much of its work happens through communication with teachers. That includes hearing feedback from teachers about what their students need and offering guidance for how they should deploy BirdBrain Technologies products in their classrooms.
Lauwers added that the company’s robotics kits can have versatile uses such as in Spanish, history, or even English classes.
“We have seen people take our products into pretty much any subject and this is especially true with the Hummingbird robotics kit, where the idea is that the kids build a robot or an animatronic creature or a diorama that moves,” Lauwers said. “They use it…so you would see a project like that projects that are truly interdisciplinary, that right now they are learning, engineering design, they are learning coding as part of that.”
Lauwers remembers needing to make a lot of changes to the products due to the fact that he’s an engineer and not an educator. Yet over time, his willingness to accept feedback garnered more trust from teachers in addition to improving the products and website, he said.
“We moved to formats that were much more video-based, much more step-by-step, and I think that’s been really helpful to the point where now our learning materials get so much positive feedback about them,” Lauwers said. “I think we continue to iterate pretty much based on feedback, any improvement that you see on our website is probably because of some feedback.”
Since the early days, the company has grown and seen its share of achievements. In 2023 the company’s Finch Robot was named an Educators Pick Best of STEM winner. In years prior, it received several votes of confidence from the National Science Foundation in the form of more than $1 million in grants. One of the things Lauwers is most proud of, he said, is being able to adjust to the remote schooling environment that became the norm in 2020.
“The pandemic was definitely a big shock to the business, in terms of selling to schools to do hands-on, in-person, teamwork-based activities,” Lauwers said. “That was a tough thing to do for about a year, so that caused the business to change. We went to remote work [and] we’ve stayed that way as a result of that.”
BirdBrain Technologies has 10 employees, eight of whom are based in Pittsburgh, with roles in operations, marketing, technical support and new product development. The company is largely bootstrapped, or funded through its revenue, instead of investors. This is something that Lauwers anticipates will continue being the norm as at the moment, he said, the products are selling well. In the future, Lauwers’ plan is for the company to continue helping students and teachers have creative learning experiences.
“Through our tools, through the things that we create, we are trying to move to a world where in the classroom, kids are getting to be more creative, getting to do more projects [and] getting to have those learning experiences,” the founder said. “That’s our mission, on our own, we can’t do it. And so it’s a privilege to serve all of the teachers who use our products.”
Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.