Vanderbilt computer science senior, alum coach high school robotics team to compete globally

Nisala Kalupahana knows firsthand the impact of career readiness programs and mentorship, which is why the Vanderbilt computer science major volunteered to help mentor a group of high schoolers who competed against some of the best robotics teams in the world April 17-20 in Houston, Texas.

2024 Pioneers team.

Kalupahana, Vanderbilt engineering alum Shun Ahmed, and Bryce Hanson, a graduating senior majoring in Human and Organizational Development (HOD) at Vanderbilt, coach and mentor a student-led robotics team called the Pioneers. They are comprised of 44 mostly underrepresented 8th-12th graders from six Nashville schools.

The team is operated by the nonprofit organization Adroit, which seeks to connect students from different backgrounds through STEM education via FIRST’s (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics programs.

“I’m so proud to mentor the Pioneers,” said Kalupahana. “FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) is one of the best career readiness programs out there. In fact, I got some of my summer internships in college because of projects that I had done on my high school FRC team. Now, I get to give students in Nashville those same opportunities.”

Through the Pioneers, students work with industry experts and professionals in designing, building, and coding an industrial-grade robot. Additionally, students deal with real-world challenges, such as budgetary constraints, time limitations, and marketing challenges.

In regional competition, the Pioneers won the “Engineering Inspiration Award” for spreading a culture of engineering within their schools and community. The team helped start a FIRST LEGO League team (LEGO robotics for elementary schoolers), ran STEM nights for younger students, and hosted a STEAM art gallery in Nashville, among other events. They also received the Autonomous Award for having the most consistent autonomous scoring at one of their competitions.

This is Kalupahana’s third year working with the Pioneers, and he said he loves seeing his mentees excel.

“I’ve seen the students I specifically mentor grow to become strong programmers and leaders that would rival students here at Vanderbilt,” he said. “Mentors are key to this process of student growth — they help students find ways to reach their goals and discover what’s possible, and push them to realize their potential.”

Kalupahana, who will graduate in May along with Hanson, recently received a distinguished 2024 Camelback Fellowship that will support an app he developed to improve people’s mental health.


Contact: Lucas Johnson,