After seeing a spike in the homeless population in their community, a group of California high school girls decided to help in a way beyond handing out cash. They built solar-powered tents for the homeless.
The team of 12 students from San Fernando High School was recruited by DIY Girls, a nonprofit that teaches engineering, math, and science skills to girls from low-income communities. The goal was to work on a project that would help them receive a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program to put toward an invention. After exploring various possibilities, they chose one that had the potential to offer immediate help to the homeless population. This population was more than 7,000 people in the San Fernando Valley, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“We [realized] homelessness was something that was growing in our community, so we decided to focus on it and we created the solar-powered tent,” America Hernandez says in a video interview with Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
Building Solar-Powered Tents for the Homeless
The idea was simple: Build a tent powered by the sun and capable of folding into a rollaway backpack for ease of movement. The task itself required a deep plunge into learning new engineering skills, working long evenings and over summer breaks, testing various materials, and even creating a hashtag to keep them going: #wegetitdone.
Few of the girls knew each other before joining forces at DIY Girls. None had knowledge or experience with hands-on engineering and coding, but none of that mattered.
Team member Chelly Chavez learned programming language C++. She developed features such as button-powered lights, a micro-USB port, and a sanitizing UVC light on a timer.
Another one of the teens, Paulina Martinez, took part in the quality control aspect of developing a worthy product. After creating the tent, the group tore it apart with a knife and stomped on it to test material strength.
Others learned how to operate a 3D printer, sew, solder, and more. Their DIY Girls advocate and executive director of the organization, Evelyn Gomez, guided them at the onset. The rest was self-taught via YouTube tutorials and trial-and-error.
After a year of hard work, the girls earned the MIT-Lemelson grant. They have since appeared on TV shows, online news outlets, and radio programs. The ultimate hope is to see their product improve the lives of those experiencing homelessness. But they also hope to see a growth of women in tech and STEM fields, and for other girls from Latina backgrounds get involved in programs like DIY Girls.
“Our AP Calculus class […] has way more guys than girls,” Paola Valtierra, one of the teens told Mashable, explaining that she and fellow team member Kassandra Salazar were the only two girls in the class.
“But we’re gonna change that.”