The DIY Girls: How 12 teens invented a solar-powered tent for the homeless

By Brittany Levine Beckman for Mashable. (Edited here.  Full article and video.)

 

As Daniela Orozco picks off excess plastic bordering a 3D-printed box, she recalls how many homeless people she saw on her way to school when she was a high school freshman.

 Just one.

 

Four years later, the number has multiplied. People live on a main thoroughfare near the school, at a nearby park, and below the off-ramps and bridges in her hometown of San Fernando, which is about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In the San Fernando Valley, homelessness increased 36% to 7,094 people last year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency’s annual count. Daniela and her friends wanted to help, but giving money wasn’t an option.

 

“Because we come from low-income families ourselves, we can’t give them money,” the high school senior says.

“We wanted to offer something besides money,” her classmate, Veronica Gonzalez, chimes in.

That was the starting point for their invention: a solar-powered tent that folds up into a rollaway backpack. The girls and 10 others from their high school had never done any hands-on engineering work before, but with the help of YouTube, Google, and trial-and-error, they got it done.

They hope that one day, their tent will improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness in their community.

Paulina Martinez zips up the solar-powered tent as the team works on final sewing touches.

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Left to right: Kassandra Salazar, Paulina Martinez, and Paola Valtierra, help DIY Girls Executive Director Evelyn Gomez set up the solar-powered tent.

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The teen girls from San Fernando High School worked on their invention over the course of a year. Come June 16, they’ll present it at MIT as part of a young inventors conference. The teens, none of whom had coded, soldered, sewn, or 3D-printed before they joined forces, won a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program to develop the invention.

They were recruited by DIY Girls, a nonprofit that teaches girls from low-income communities about engineering, math, and science, to go after the grant.

“I knew I wanted to apply for it, but I needed a team,” says Evelyn Gomez, 29, the executive director of DIY Girls. “I went back to my calculus teacher at my high school and did a hands-on recruitment activity.”

Most of the girls didn’t know each other before, but they quickly became close friends. 

Hands-on STEM education at schools, especially for girls in low-income communities, is severely lacking, Evelyn says. Women make up just 29% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Board, a federal agency. Around 6% of female working scientists and engineers are Hispanic or Latina.

Prinsesa Alvarez shows off the solar-powered tent in its rollaway backpack.

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When packed up, the tent looks like a “big blue sun,” Prinsesa Alvarez says. A clear opening on the backpack lets sun shine through to charge the solar panels.

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“You’re learning new things you’ve never even heard of or even thought of,” says Chelly Chavez, who learned the programming language C++ to get the technical aspects of the tent to behave. The tent has button-powered lights, two USB ports, a micro-USB port, and the girls have even tested a sanitizing UVC light on a countdown timer.

The girls work on their project six days a week, getting together even through their winter and spring breaks. They often come home after hours of sewing to find loose needles falling off their clothes. They made two prototypes of the tent, but the first one is now in shreds. They put it through the ringer during quality control tests, tearing it with a knife, dousing it with water, and stomping on it.

“When they were hitting it, my heart dropped,” says Paulina Martinez as she stitches one of the tent’s edges. They destroyed their finished product, just to start again. It was yet another tough engineering lesson the girls would learn.

Left to right: Wendy Samayoa and Prinsesa Alvarez chat about the project over their laptops.

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The LED lights the team has been testing before finishing their final product.

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Paulina Martinez sews material for the tent.

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Left to right: Patricia Cruz and Veronica Gonzalez inspect a 3D-printed box.

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Before settling on their tent idea, the team had tossed out other options. They wondered: What could they do about pollution or water quality? But they realized they wanted to invent something that would help their community more directly.

“Because we live here, we see it growing constantly,” Maggie Mejia says of the homeless population. For her, it even hits close to home: “If your parents miss X amount of bills, you can fall into homelessness, too.”

Maggie and the others don’t have concrete plans for the future of their invention after the MIT presentation, but they hope it could eventually be mass-produced.

Maggie Mejia explains why she joined DIY Girls.

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The team tested several materials before deciding what to use in their solar-powered tent.

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The $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program could only be used on the invention itself, not traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to present the award. So DIY Girls fundraised an additional $15,000 to send the team to MIT, an expense the girls’ families couldn’t otherwise bear.

But they’ve made it, and it’s a success story that could make a really big impact. Already featured by local TV stations and Ryan Seacrest on his morning radio show, the team wants their accomplishment to encourage other girls to pursue STEM careers.

“Me and her, we’re the only two junior girls in our AP Calculus class, which has way more guys than girls,” says Paola Valtierra, pointing to Kassandra Salazar, who dreams of being an astronaut and has a tiny, metal one on her keychain. “But we’re gonna change that.”