Tech Starters Host Final Presentations and Award Ceremony

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  • Tech Starters President Rakshinee Sreekanth ’22 gives instructions to the members of the club and the judges before presentations begin.

  • STEMBOTS developers Harshith Manjunath, Arjun Bhardwaj, and Aiden Carr stand proudly next to Club President Rakshinee Sreekanth as they win the award for ‘Best Plan.’

  • Standing tall, Ricetta builders Justin Lopato, Saketh Sudina, and Jorge Cazares Guzman smile after winning their ‘Best Design’ award.

  • Lining up for a photo, Stematics developers Rakshinee Sreekanth, Pascal Garcia, Keith Capodanno, and Pramod Venkoba Rao pose for their ‘Best Prototype’ award.

  • After winning the judges’ approval, Checkpoint team members Danielle Manibusan, Sneha Nangunoori, Mehek Patro, Drishya Koirala, Fatma Ikibas, Ravi Shah, and Sraavya Danala all form a row to capture the moment after winning their ‘Best Overall’ award.

  • Beaming wide, after the awards were handed out, Tech Starters take a group shot of everyone at the end of their annual Demo Day, along with the sponsors and judges.

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On Wednesday, May 11, Tech Starters held their second annual demo day, consisting of a series of project presentations that the members of the club worked on over the course of the year. Since the club’s founding in 2020, it’s expanded to encompass four separate groups, each of which develop their own products during the year. The groups in order of presentation were STEMBOTS, Checkpoint, Stematics, and Ricetta. Each group took turns pitching their product, with presentations ranging anywhere from 7 to 10 minutes each. Afterwards, guest judges with experience in the tech industry rated each of the members’ pitches, commenting on different parts of the presentations. At the end of the night, awards were handed out.

Incoming club president and current club parliamentarian Priyadarsi Mishra ‘23 expressed the anticipation and joy he had felt in the run-up to the members’ presentations after a year of hard work.

“It’s always great looking at all the projects, because you see the work that they put in every week, and then you see the project at the end,” Mishra said. “And I think that’s just the best feeling.”

The progress on these projects have been a long time in the making, and the results at the end are a tremendous award. After countless hours spent making these projects into something presentable, it’s easy to see why the end product winning an award would be very gratifying. The relationships and bonds formed by these long-term projects have been valuable to the majority of the club’s members, who have found close friends to work alongside with, who share similar passions within the world of innovation and technology.

“[I love] making new connections, making new friends. I made all my friends in this club, honestly. We get a lot of experience,” future Vice President Sneha Nangunoori ‘23 said. “Usually, people know how to do stuff, but they don’t know how to apply it. And that’s really important. So, our club allows people to do that, [to execute them].”

The presentations included a wide variety of products, including a new technological building block toy for children, a new way to keep track of assignments for neurodivergent students, a bright and mind-bending puzzle video game, and a website that allows the user to input in the ingredients they have in their fridge to find matching recipes, with a feature that provides a delivery option to transport the missing recipe ingredients to your doorstep.

The names of the groups’ products included STEMBOTS, Checkpoint, Stematics, and Ricetta, each of which were either started this year, or were founded in the unpredictable seas of the pandemic. “I started [Checkpoint] last year with my group. So [it] was a one-year project, easily. I have a pretty strong connection with the group and the people,” Nangunoori said. “And my best friends [the seniors are] graduating. [I’m] kind of emotional about that. But they’re still happy that we won best overall. And it’s their second time winning.”

While each group was optimistic about winning an award, none were sure what reactions to expect from the judges.

“Honestly, we were happy with whoever gets an award, and I think it comes down to enjoying yourself. So, we expected the awards, but it was a great experience for everyone,” Mishra said. “We were a bit behind, but I think it was worth it because we got a lot more teacher responses and a lot more industry responses. So I think that helped the group overall.”

The more engagement that the club received, the more productive it could be. But maintaining a club like this would be difficult without active, passionate pursuit of its main goals. This kind of original endeavor would be challenging to find, given that the group was established in the midst of the ever-changing tides of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current Tech Starters President Rakshinee Sreekanth ‘22 was the founder of the club during the pandemic and virtual schooling last year.

“[The club] has grown way beyond my wildest imaginations. We started it during the pandemic. And a lot of people, because there’s not much of a commitment, [were] logging into a Google Meet and then going onto the meetings and not doing any work,” Sreekanth said. “We had a lot of members last year, which we were very excited about. But the thing with virtual [meetings] is that it’s hard to get people motivated to do work. And especially group teamwork. So that was definitely something that was improved this year.”

With the increased student involvement, there’s also been an increase in the members’ feeling of community, which united under the idea of initiating new ideas in STEM, and the combined teamwork that made it all possible. 

“Just working with people, face to face, and being able to talk to them definitely helped not only their end products but their teamwork and overall motivation they [needed] to do the work,” said Sreekanth. 

This motivation is what drove the students closer together in the first place, and further led to a more productive and innovative club. Their ideas bounced off of one another, and their motivation and inspiration to bring their individual ideas to life unified their achievements, earning each group their own award.

“I’m overall really happy with how it went. To be honest, I was kind of worried, and a little nervous about how it would go. Because it was our very first in-person one. We did a virtual one last year, and it also went well, but it just didn’t have the same sort of vibe, energy,” Sreekanth said.

But the struggle to keep the group together and thriving during the pandemic and beyond was the biggest challenge for the club. Tech Starters, with both its president and founder graduating, will have to grow and succeed on its own, starting next year.

“There were a lot of ‘committed’ people in our group, but it’s hard to get people to do work when there’s not much accountability. That was probably the biggest struggle that we had in the beginning of the year. But, I’m definitely happy with the progress and everything that’s been going on,” said Sreekanth.

Despite the club’s initial smaller size, the rapid rate in which it grew surpassed many expectations.

“Honestly, in the beginning, I was happy with like five, ten people that would be interested in coming to the club,” said Sreekanth. “The fact that we have around thirty-five to forty active members. Not everyone was able to make it today. And for a club that just started last year, [it’s] definitely something that I’m proud about.”

“I mean, every event [isn’t without] its low moments,” said Sreekanth. “We had a few technical difficulties, one of the judges had a flat tire, so he wasn’t able to come today. I was the one who invited these judges personally because I know them. I made sure to invite half the people who are in the business side of things, and half the people who are more [technology and STEM related.]”

The variety of judges were able to give unique and differing perspectives, which better gave each of the student groups constructive feedback.

While going to the University of Texas is a major achievement, Sreekanth found leaving the club that she watched mature and grow over the course of two years to be difficult. The issue that the majority of seniors are facing this year is leaving their close underclassmen friends. They’ve been finding it difficult, as most of the relationships they’ve established have been over the course of four years.

“[Leaving the club] is a little nerve-racking, because I kind of feel like if I’m not there, the pieces of the thing might tumble as soon as I’m gone. But I am confident in the people that we’ve elected to be our president and vice president,” said Sreekanth. “We’ve definitely been training people to make sure that they understand [how to run the club]. Because it’s easy to think that you know how to run a club, but once you’re inside the nitty gritty of it, it becomes a lot more difficult.”

Sreekanth has been searching for members that are truly passionate about the club, those that aren’t just there for a resume builder, but those who are truly interested and invested in the club and what it has to offer. Looking for people who are passionate about starting their own STEM projects has proven more difficult than Sreekanth imagined. The majority of those interested the previous year may have been more focused on what the club could provide for their resume, rather than what it could offer for their personal enrichment. This distracted the club from its main goal of unifying under creativity and innovation and deterred the club from the drive to succeed as a community.

“The problem with a lot of STEM-related clubs, not just in Westwood; in a lot of places, is that it’s very easy to be a resume boost, and then you move on. So it’s hard to get that personal connection, especially tech-related things, it’s hard to personally be involved, and want to make the club succeed, more than just putting it on your application or something.”

The Tech Starters demo day was a success. The presentations went well, the snacks were fantastic, and the judges were impressed. All of the groups won their own individual awards, and the president was proud of the club’s collective achievements. “I’m overall really happy with how it went,” said Sreekanth. “I actually thought it went really well.”