The germ of the idea formed a few years ago when Yaretzi Costilla’s father ended up in an emergency room. 

The Antioch construction worker had been laboring under the hot sun but left early after coming down with a headache, nausea, dizziness and blurred vision. His wife called the doctor, and the response was unequivocal: Get to the hospital. 

Efren Costilla’s brush with heatstroke became 13-year-old Yaretzi’s inspiration for a school project that recently earned her and three teammates a spot in a national contest later this month. 

The all-girl foursome at Oakley’s Orchard Park School have designed a device to detect the onset of heatstroke, trouncing other teams at the preliminary, regional and state levels to become the only middle-schoolers from California who will be defending their research before judges at the MESA USA National Engineering Design Competition on June 23. 

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“We’ve worked very hard, and I think our chances are pretty good,” said Natalia Cortez, 14.  

Since the start of the school year, the eighth graders have been meeting after school to design and build Therm-Alert, an approximately 5-inch-square circuit board comprising resistors, sensors, three LED lights and a buzzer encased in 3D printed housing that’s worn in a sleeve on the forearm. 

A steady green light indicates all is well, but if the user’s surface body temperature reaches 105 degrees or pulse quickens to dangerous levels, the monitor displays a yellow light accompanied by a low-pitched warning. 

A red light and loud buzzer signal that the worker should notify his or her employer or someone else nearby. 

The Orchard Park School MESA team’s Therm-Alert prototype lights up yellow and then red when a user is in danger of heatstroke. (Rowena Gonden/Bay City News)

The girls also are developing a smartphone app that will work with Therm-Alert’s sensors to inform the employer or a family member if the user overheats. 

As it turns concept into reality, Team Therm-Alert not only is applying the collective skills it already had — Bella Rose, 13, knew something about hardware and software thanks to a computer class she’s taking, and Yaretzi is strong in math and science — but is also learning new ones. 

“Before MESA, we had no idea what Arduino was,” Natalia said of the programmable circuit board and code-writing software that’s used to activate a variety of objects such as motors, speakers, buttons, screens and LEDs. 

Undaunted, they learned to code by watching YouTube videos and consulted with the teacher who doubled as last year’s MESA club adviser. Natalia also took an online class in Arduino through the county’s library system. 

The team — from left, Bella Rose, Bethany Fumar, Yaretzi Costilla and Natalia Cortez — started meeting after school at the beginning of the school year to work on its contest-winning device that senses when a worker is at risk of heatstroke. (Rowena Gonden/Bay City News)

That some of the team had never heard of MESA before joining the club didn’t dampen their commitment to its cause. 

MESA, which stands for Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, is an academic enrichment effort that began at an Oakland high school in 1970 to prepare female and minority students for four-year degrees and careers in engineering-related fields where the two groups historically have been underrepresented. 

Encouraging these young people to pursue jobs in engineering and science has practical benefits to society at large, says MESA director Janiene Langford, who oversees five participating school districts in the East Bay from the MESA center at California State University, East Bay’s Hayward campus. 

Natalia Cortez shows off the matching T-shirts the girls received for the regionals competition. (Rowena Gonden/Bay City News)

“People want to solve the issues that are relevant to them, and if you do not have diverse people (with) those skills to be able to challenge inequities, they’re not going to go away,” she said. 

Take Natalia, who was drawn to her school’s MESA club not only because of the writing and engineering know-how that competition requires but “just the idea of making something that can impact people positively,” she said, noting that she has several uncles who work in construction as well as a couple of aunts who used to be farmworkers. 

Over the past half century, the state-funded organization has spread throughout California and now serves approximately 24,000 students. Hundreds of middle and high schools where most students are minorities and from low-income households participate, as do dozens of community colleges and 13 universities. In addition to holding competitions, MESA offers academic tutoring, internships and field trips.  

As the competition nears, Team Therm-Alert has shifted into high gear; the girls convene for 1½ to 2 hours at least three times a week with club adviser Susan Caguyong to put the finishing touches on their creation, which doesn’t include the Zoom sessions from home to practice their oral presentations with one another. 

The requirements to compete at the national level are rigorous: Teams submit a written brief explaining why they chose their project, detail the steps they took in designing it and explain what aspects of the endeavor didn’t work out. 

The Orchard Park School MESA team — from left, Bella Rose, Yaretzi Costilla, Natalia Cortez and Bethany Fumar — revels in its win at the MESA state finals. (Photo courtesy Susan Caguyong)

They also need graphic design skills to present the same information on a poster. Producing a video to pitch the project to judges is another element, and the girls must think on their feet when presenting their brainchild to the evaluators in a real-time Q&A session. 

But adhering to 26 pages of rules is eminently doable for teens who already are thinking about the challenges that come after high school. Princeton, MIT, UC Berkeley and Stanford are on their minds, as are careers in biomedical and computer engineering, medicine and law. 

“They’re not your average eighth-grade girls,” Caguyong said.