Teen Girls Win Major Grant For An Innovative Product They Designed To Combat Homelessness

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We all know that wisdom comes with age, but don’t ever underestimate the power of youth. A group of teen girls from Pacoima, California, are living proof of what happens when opportunity meets passion and determination. Twelve high school students have invented a clever way to combat homelessness, by creating collapsing solar-powered tents.

They were recently awarded at $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program for this genius idea, which will now allow them to continue working on their important project, and showcase their work at MIT’s Eurekafest in Massachusetts in June 2017, alongside the other 14 recipients of the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams grant.

While the recognition of such a prestigious academic institution is certainly impressive and could potentially lead the girls to grow this project on a larger scale, it is the solar-powered tent invention and the ideas behind it that inspires us the most.

The 12 girls from San Fernando High School are America Hernandez (grade 11), Aracely Chavez (grade 12), Daniela Orozco (grade 12), Kassandra Salazar (grade 11), Kenia Shi (grade 12), Maggie Mejia (grade 12), Paola Valtierra (grade 11), Patricia Cruz (grade 12), Paulina Martinez (grade 12), Prinsesa Alvarez (grade 12), Veronica Gonzalez (grade 12), and Wendy Samoyoa (grade 12).

They are part of an organization called DIY Girls, started by Los Angeles-based engineer and educator Luz Rivas in 2011. Luz was born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents, and after falling in love with computer science at the public school she attended, made it all the way to MIT where she graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

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Today she is heavily invested in growing the number of girls interested in STEM careers. What started as a program at one single school has now expanded to reach over 1200 girls since 2012 who get hands-on STEM experience in a way they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. The majority of their participants are minorities (African-American, Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander) who are largely underrepresented in the major STEM industries.

As the organization continues to grow, we can clearly see the invested impact DIY Girls is having in the lives of these teens, which could in turn impact society. The idea for the solar-powered tents came from discussions about the growing rate of homelessness the girls saw.

“We see homeless people in our community – at church, on the streets, and in our families. In particular, the San Fernando Valley saw a 36% increase in homelessness this year to 7,100 residents,” the girls noted in their project summary.

“After weeks of deliberation, we decided that homelessness in Los Angeles is an issue that we should focus on because it is a daily reality we all must confront.

Additionally, 13,000 people become homeless every month in their area, prompting the team to come up with an invention that could impact their own community.

In accordance with STEM principles learned through the DIY Girls program, the team wanted to “apply engineering principles and processes toward the development of a device” that could provide shelter to the homeless population.

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The process involved extensive research into homelessness, as well as interviews with people living on the streets as well as social organizations which helped them formulate the critical engineering components of the tent. They knew their project had to include the following:

1. Capable of collapsing into a portable backpack

2. Utilize renewable solar energy to power basic electrical devices like cell phones

3. Incorporate UV LEDs to sanitize the interior of the tent

4. Use insulating material that protects against Los Angeles’ wide ranging desert climate

Their research found cell phones are an important tool for the homeless population for a number of reasons. A study conducted by the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California in 2011 found that 62% of homeless youth had cell phones; of those with a cell phone, 17% used the phone to connect with a caseworker or social worker, 36% used it to connect to a current or potential employer, 51% used it to connect to friends and 41% used it to connect to parents.

Homeslessness in Los Angeles is currently being tackled at a legislative level, with a ballot measure supported by Mayor Eric Garcetti being approved by voters in the recent election. Roughly 76% of Los Angeles residents voted “yes” on Measure HHH which authorizes the sale of $1.2 billion in bonds to build an estimated 10,000 housing units for the homeless and some facilities for drug treatment and mental health services for the homeless.

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Yet it is community initiatives and projects like the solar-powered collapsing tent that is going to further impact the lives of the homeless population, thanks to the organizations like DIY Girls and the teens from San Fernando High (who recently met with Mayor Garcetto, in the image above). If anyone still needs a reason to understand the value of engaging more and more girls in STEM industries, other than the fact that the number of STEM jobs positions available are outpacing the number of people applying, just look at what DIY Girls is accomplishing.

They are serving a demographic that is otherwise being left behind by some of the traditional institutions. And these girls who won the MIT grant know full well what they are capable of after being empowered to pursue this opportunity.

“As adolescents, we never thought we could take action to solve the issues we were passionate about. Whenever I thought about the social issues that plagued the U.S and how much I wanted to resolve them, I always thought of myself accomplishing it as an adult,” said 12th grader Aracely Chavez.

“Because this issue is very close to home, we have made it our goal to make this backpack happen. We’ve let ourselves ignore this issue for far too long. We must act to make LA a better place to live,” said the team of girls.

We’re excited to see the future accomplishments of this group of teens and the impact they will make. You can find out more about DIY Girls by going to their website.

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