DIY Girls Created a Solar Tent to Help the Homeless Community

How it All Started

When Daniela Orozco was a high school freshman and picked up the plastic waste leftovers of a 3D-printed box, she remembers how many homeless people she saw on her way to school.

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Daniela and her friends wanted to help, but donating money wasn’t an option. And four years later, the number of homeless people has been multiplied.

Harsh Reality

All of a sudden people live on the main highway near the school, at a nearby park, and below the off-ramps and bridges in Daniela’s hometown of San Fernando, which is about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

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In the San Fernando Valley, the number of homeless people increased by 36% to 7,094 people last year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency’s annual report. Daniela and her friends wanted to help, but giving away their money wasn’t an option.

Next, find out how the girls came up with the idea

Value over Money

“Because we come from low-income families ourselves, we can’t give them money,” the twelfth-grader says. “We wanted to offer something besides money,” Daniela’s classmate, Veronica Gonzalez, added.

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That was the birth of their invention: a solar-powered tent that folds into a rollaway backpack.

The girls and ten other classmates had never done any hands-on engineering work before but managed to learn how it’s done on the go by trial and error with the help of YouTube and Google. They hoped that one day, their tent would improve the lives of homeless people in their community.

Young Entrepreneurs

The teenage girls from San Fernando High School worked on their creation over one year long. They would present their invention at MIT, one of the most prestigious Ivy League universities in the US, on June 16 as part of a young investor’s conference.

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The teens, whom none of coded, soldered, sewn, or 3D-printed before collaborated and won a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program to develop their invention.

Next, find out what were the first steps of the girls in their project

First seeds

They were recruited by DIY Girls, a nonprofit organization that inspires girls from low-income communities to gain interest and learn 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.

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“I went back to my calculus teacher at my high school and did a hands-on recruitment activity.” Most of the girls never met each other before, but quickly became close friends.

With a little help from my friends  

When DIY Girls was founded back in 2012, the donation-based group worked with only 35 girls in one elementary school classroom. Last year, the number raised to 650 girls in elementary, middle, and high schools all over Los Angeles.

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The small nonprofit got so popular that it even keeps a waiting list because demand for its services is so high.

Next, find out the real numbers of girls in science and engineering

The Actual Numbers

Hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education at schools, especially for girls in low-income communities, is severely lacking, Evelyn says.

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Women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Board, a federal agency. About 6% of female scientists and engineers are either Hispanic or Latina.

The Pressure of young girls learning Tech

“I was often the only girl in the class and the only Latina in the class. It felt like kind of imposter syndrome. I studied aerospace engineering. When I was getting my master’s degree, I was often the only girl in the class and the only Latina in the class. It felt like kind of imposter syndrome,” says Evelyn, who got her master’s degree from UCLA.

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“It’s such a farfetched idea: You’re going to represent the Latina community in a bad light if you ask a stupid question or you’re going to represent women in a bad light if you ask a stupid question, and of course that’s not true. But I felt that.”

Next, find out how the girls learned to code and engineer

Moving forward

Evelyn doesn’t want the girls working on the tent project ever to feel that way. They don’t have an engineering background that runs in the family. Some of them will even be the first in their families to ever go to college.

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In the beginning, the team depended on Evelyn for guidance, but at no time they started doing everything on their own.

Getting Things Done

The girls learned very quickly and self-taught themselves in every step of the way.

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If they had an issue with a solar panel not functioning correctly, they looked up YouTube videos. If they couldn’t figure out a stitch pattern, they Googled it. The girls even developed their motivational hashtag: #wegetitdone.

Next, find out the struggles the young girls faced

Hard Work Pays Off

“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.

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“We’re just like, ‘how do we do this,’ ‘how do we do that,'” says Prinsesa Alvarez as she helps Chelly with a bunch of messy wires during a team meeting.

When the Walls Come Down

The girls work on their project for six days a week, attending group meetings even during their winter and spring breaks. They often come home after many hours of sewing to find loose needles falling off their clothes.

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They made two prototypes of the tent, but the first one is now torn into pieces. They put it through quality control tests, and when it did not pass, they started tearing it with a knife, dousing it with water, and stomping on it.

Next, find out how the teenage girls affected their community.

The Making of

“When they were hitting it, my heart dropped,” said Paulina Martinez as she was stitching one of the tent’s edges. They completely ruined their finished product, to start everything from scratch. It was yet another critical engineering lesson the girls learned.

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Before the team agreed on the tent project, they eliminated many other options. The girls wondered what could they do in regards to pollution or water quality, but realized they wanted to invent something that would directly help their community first.

Future Plans?

“Because we live here, we see it is constantly growing,” Maggie Mejia commented on the homeless population growth. For her, it resonates on a deeper level, as this matter is close to home: “If your parents miss X amount of bills, you can fall into homelessness, too.” Maggie and the others don’t have definite plans for the future of their invention after the MIT presentation, but they hope it could be mass-produced eventually.

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The $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program could only be spent on the invention itself, not on traveling costs to Cambridge, Massachusetts to present the award. So the DIY Girls fundraised an additional $15,000 to send the team to MIT since their families wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Next, find out where the girls appeared with their invention

Young Winners

But they’ve made it, and it’s a success story that can inspire and impact many people. After several appearances on local TV stations and The Ryan Seacrest radio show, the team wants their achievement to encourage other girls to go after STEM careers.

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“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 has dreams of being an astronaut one day and has a tiny, metal one on her keychain. “But we’re gonna change that.”