By Sarah Lehman
Special to The Almanac
If you were to hear about a local group called the Ramen Club, you might picture a passel of people gathered together to sample different kinds of noodle soup.
In reality, this club is a team of high school students who met through the robotics program at Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley.
They formed the Ramen Club early this summer because they wanted to continue working after the school year ended to extend their work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) into the broader community. Their name is a nod to their favorite ramen shop, where they frequently meet.
The students quickly found a project: After visiting the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, members of the club were inspired to create a device to help, ultimately designing a glove that has buttons in the fingertips to act as a remote for those who could not see.
Club leader Viansa Schmulbach noted that she and fellow club members try to determine the actual needs of those they hope to help, "because if it's not something that they actually want, then what's the point of making it?
"We decided to create this glove that can help them open emails, navigate through web pages, that sort of thing, and then we also added on another part of it that helps them cook by pouring all the ingredients for them."
This is the kind of work Ramen Club members hope to do more of, she says. The students were inspired to host a three-day hackathon last month, during which participants attempted to create programs or devices to improve the quality of life of people living with cognitive disabilities.
Any product created is the intellectual property of the creator, she says, but the club aims to give the creators opportunities to market or share their work.
Inspired by the hackathon, Ramen Club members decided to commit to one private club project and one outreach project every season of the year except winter, when they are occupied building their own robot for competition.
After talking with a friend who wanted to attend coding camps but couldn't afford it, Schmulbach was inspired to further reach out to the STEM community. Soon after the hackathon, she held a free, week-long coding camp for students in first through sixth grade.
She says she believes that more diversity is needed in STEM fields and hopes to share her coding experience with eager students of all experience levels. The Branching Out camp progressed from basic coding platforms and skills to a final project and awards ceremony at the end of the week. She brought in a panel of high school students to talk to her campers at the beginning of the week, and arranged a Computer History Museum tour. Museum officials opened the doors at no charge because Schmulbach ran the camp as a nonprofit.
Ever since she was in elementary school, Schmulbach has been interested in computer science, but as for the future, she is torn between pursuing a career in the technology world or becoming a doctor. She is even considering pursuing a double major in order to study medicine and tech.
"I'm super into computer science now," she says, "especially since we've talked about some of the other things we can do with [it. This year I also joined a mentorship program where we used AI to rank ambulance calls, which is natural voice recognition, something that I'll be teaching at a workshop later this summer."
Though the tech world is slowly becoming more accepting of women and minorities, Schmulbach acknowledges that it can be intimidating for those groups to get involved in STEM because they're often told they don't belong. Her advice to those who are interested: Form community groups and make sure to get your voice heard.
"I formed this club because I know it's a group of people (who) will listen to me," she says. "There are lots of Facebook groups for women in tech, so there are always people who are available to support your mission ... and you just have to surround yourself with them."
In addition to Schmulbach, who is president of the group, club members are Esha Umbarkar, Ryan Schackel, Bobby Youstra, Dimitri Saliba and Matthew Cirimele.
Ramen Club members are working hard to make sure everyone gets the opportunities they deserve to explore robotics, coding, and more. As for the future, they hope to welcome new members in the coming months and continue pushing the boundaries of what their robots can do.