According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual count, homelessness has increased 36% from last year in the San Fernando Valley. Twelve girls in a local high school wanted to help the homeless population but knew they didn’t have the means to do so financially.
“We wanted to offer something besides money,” said Veronica Gonzalez.
Their desire to help is what led to their invention: a solar-powered tent capable of folding up into a rollaway backpack. And even though the high school girls had no experience with hands-on engineering, they were able to succeed with the help of the internet and trial and error.
Before they settled on the idea of the solar-powered tent, the team had explored the option of finding ways to help solve pollution or increase the quality of water. But after lots of deliberation, they decided they wanted to address a need in the community and find a way to help those around them directly. “Because we live here, we see it growing constantly,” Maggie Mejia said, referring to the homeless population.
It took the high school girls a year to work on their invention before it was ready to present to MIT as part of its young inventors conference. Although the girls had never coded, sewn or 3D-printed before the project, their tenacity and hard work earned them a $10,000 grant to develop their invention.
The girls were recruited by Evelyn Gomez, director of DIY Girls, a nonprofit that teaches girls from low-income communities about engineering, math and science, to go after the grant.
While at first they looked to Gomez for direction, the girls soon learned how to function as a team on their own via YouTube videos and Google. Throughout their journey they even created their own hashtag: #wegetitdone
Chelly Chavez had to learn the programming language C++ in order to fulfill the technical aspects needed for the tent. Her efforts meant the tent could have button-powered lights, a micro-USB port and even a sanitizing UVC light on a countdown timer. “You’re learning new things you’ve never even heard of or even thought of,” Chavez said.
Throughout the process, the girls learned tough engineering lessons such has having to put their prototype through quality control tests that included tearing the tent with a knife and stomping on it. “When they were hitting it, my heart dropped,” said Paulina Martinez. They destroyed their finished product, just to start again.
The success of the team and their product did not go unnoticed. They were featured by local TV stations with Ryan Seacrest. And while they hope their project goes on to change the lives of the homeless in their area, they also hope to encourage other girls to pursue STEM careers.