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.
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.
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.
When DIY Girls was founded in 2012, the nonprofit worked with 35 girls in one elementary school classroom. Last year, it served 650 girls in elementary, middle, and high schools throughout Los Angeles County. The small nonprofit even keeps a waitlist because demand for its services is so high.
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.