Solution Overview

What is the name of your organization?

Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator

What is the name of your solution?

Middle School Girls in STEM

Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

An after-school program for underserved middle school girls to prototype solutions to pressing climate issues and build confidence as problem-solvers.

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)’s Middle School Girls in STEM Program (MSGS) addresses the persistent and significant STEM education and opportunity gap in historically underserved communities in Los Angeles, California. Our program also aims to build a pipeline of women innovators and STEM professionals to improve the representation of women in high-paying science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs by engaging young women, especially those who are Latina or Black, at a critical point in their education. The middle school-to-high school transition is when many girls drop out of more rigorous science, engineering and math coursework - in part due to lack of encouragement from educators, lack of confidence, lack of access, or outdated societal expectations.

In Los Angeles County, 89.5% of students in the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) are non-white, and 80% live in poverty. This disadvantage results in systemic issues like chronic absenteeism, lack of resources, reduced parental engagement, and challenges finding places conducive to study. Furthermore, post-Covid-19 effects persist. Overall, LAUSD student performance (grades 8-11) on annual Smarter Balanced Assessments tests in mathematics declined by 5.03 percentage points down to just 28.47% passing in spring 2022 (compared to 2018-19 results), and the greatest decline was among female students (-6.16%) and Latino students (-5.4%) (source: The 74. 11/22/22).

Unlike their more affluent counterparts, students who live in underresourced communities often lack access to critical science, math and engineering support, including up-to-date curriculum and laboratories (source: US News and World Report). Moreover, youth from middle-income households spend 6,000 more hours in after-school and summer learning activities than their peers from low-income households by the time they reach sixth grade. The impact of this disparity is evident in school and later in life, with youth from low-income households less likely to demonstrate interest in STEM and pursue STEM careers, leaving them out of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs in America (source: STEM Next Opportunity Fund). Additionally, in the U.S., women made up 48% of the workforce but just 35% of STEM workers in 2021 (source: National Science Foundation). Underrepresentation in the clean energy sector is even higher; women comprise only 25% of workers in energy overall, and 32% of the renewable energy workforce (source: Center for American Progress).

In particular, women remain underrepresented in clean technology due to several barriers, including the dearth of female role models, the perception that it is a male-dominated field, and a lack of encouragement from educational institutions to pursue cleantech careers [CleanTechnica (].

What is your solution?

Aligned with MIT Solve’s focus on improving STEM educational opportunities and academic development for K-12 students who are economically disadvantaged, the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)’s Middle School Girls in STEM program gives middle school girls from historically marginalized communities across Los Angeles the chance to participate in a semester-long high-touch experience at the intersection of STEM and sustainability. The program is rich with opportunities for collaboration, inquiry-based research, access to university-grade prototype development tools, and connections with women STEM professionals to overcome barriers and lack of exposure to STEM coursework and education or industry bias [ (].

LACI aims to light a spark for middle school girls and inspire their agency as problem-solvers. Our team developed this program with local educators and curriculum specialists in 2019 for girls who show an early passion for science but may be disengaged from school and could benefit from experiential learning.

LACI is a top ranked cleantech incubator (UBI Global) and an important regional innovation hub. We are in a unique position to engage girls through hands-on prototype development in a top-tier makerspace on our campus. Students address real-world problems and receive inspiration, mentoring and encouragement from women entrepreneurs in our highly regarded cleantech incubation programs as well as support from industry and government partners in the clean energy, zero emission transportation and sustainable cities sectors.

In partnership with teachers at local middle schools in low-income communities like Boyle Heights, Watts and South LA, the program team has designed a research-backed curriculum aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that emphasizes the relevance of school (especially math and science) to future achievement and teaches students about climate change and ways they can make an impact to mitigate its impact on our communities and our environment, now and in the future.

LACI not only trains science teachers at our partner schools to deliver MSGS program content in an after-school setting, we also provide educational resources, classroom materials, and access to women mentors to further enrich the educational experience. The LACI Program Team meets regularly with the teachers throughout the course of the program to address any roadblocks and provide additional customized support to ensure student success. What’s more, we’ve learned how important having a program like LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM is from our partnering STEM educators:

MSGS teacher, Ms. Kelsey Hillis from Vox Collegiate,  shares insights from the program,  “LACI’s Middle School Girls Program broke up the monotony of school, gave the girls the opportunity to apply science in a real tangible way, and increased the girls’ self-efficacy.”

MSGS teacher, Ms. Jilian Davenport from Hollenbeck Middle School, shares the importance of having role models in STEM to help the girls envision a future that is possible, “It was important for the girls to see women and women of color in these spaces, so that they could see themselves as agents of change in making the world a better place.”

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM program serves girls ages 12-14 from low-income areas of Los Angeles. Last year, we partnered with teachers at Hollenbeck Middle School (Boyle Heights), Edwin Markham Middle School (Watts), and Vox Collegiate (South LA) to deliver the program to 28 students. On average, 78% of our girls are Latinx, 21% are Black, and 92% qualify for free or reduced lunch. Vox Collegiate and Hollenbeck Middle School are both designated in the top ten percent of most impacted disadvantaged communities by Cal EnviroScreen 4.0, a science-based mapping tool that helps identify California communities that are most affected by many sources of pollution, and that are often especially vulnerable to pollution’s effects.

The long-term goal of LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM program is to empower young girls, especially from disadvantaged communities, to learn critical skills at the intersection of STEM + Sustainability, so that they can be active participants in the rapidly growing STEM sector and agents of change in their local communities and beyond. The program provides access to knowledge, resources, and experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be available to these students. One of our teachers, Ms. Linda Hunt, shares, “LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM Program gave the young ladies an opportunity to participate in a STEM Program which built their critical thinking skills, collaboration, presentation skills, and confidence levels. Many of these girls have never had an opportunity to participate in a program outside of school before.” 

What’s more, upon program completion, the girls often are able to see themselves and others in a new way. LACI Pre/Post Survey feedback highlights a marked increase in scores around “I can be a STEM Professional if I want to be.” One of the girls noted that the program changed her perspective because she learned “it is possible for anyone from anywhere no matter who they are to become an engineer in STEM.”

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

LACI is located in downtown Los Angeles, in an Opportunity Zone that is adjacent to some of the most disadvantaged communities in our city, including Boyle Heights, Huntington Park and South Los Angeles (per SB 535). LACI works closely with community-based organizations in these areas across all of our initiatives and serves residents as participants in our incubation, workforce development and other programs. [66% of the population we serve is considered low-income and 79% are Black, Indigenous, People of Color - including Latinx (BIPOC).]

52% of LACI’s full-time staff and 54% of our Board of Directors identify as BIPOC. 52% of our staff are women. The Program Team leading the MSGS Program is 100% women and 75% BIPOC (25% Latinx and 50% Southeast Asian).

As a leading U.S. cleantech incubator, LACI provides the MSGS program participants with:

  • The opportunity to tackle real-world challenges. LACI identifies key partners in our ecosystem of cleantech entrepreneurs and stakeholders in the clean energy, zero emission transportation and sustainable cities sectors to pose current challenges for the girls to explore, analyze and solve.

  • Access to lab facilities. Participants have access to state-of-the-art facilities outfitted with professional-grade technology for newer cleantech fields. Girls in LACI’s MSGS program receive hands-on training and work in the Advanced Prototyping Center on our campus, which is refreshed with new equipment regularly and houses the labs and workspaces used for R&D by entrepreneurs to create and test innovative cleantech prototypes.

  • Connections with women STEM entrepreneur role models. Unlike other programs that partner with external organizations to source volunteers, LACI, as a small business  incubator, can draw expertise from our existing cohorts of startup founders (40% of whom are women).

  • Demonstration opportunities for wider impact. Girls present their innovative challenge solutions at a culminating Demo Day, attended by a broad range of LACI team members, startup founders and industry partners. Students also have opportunities to present at climate and equity-focused events on LACI’s campus. Students presented at a roundtable discussion and showcase of electric vehicle technologies hosted by LACI with the City of LA for London Mayor Sadiq Khan and former LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. Students also participated in LACI’s recent Transportation Electrification Partnership Summit, where they pitched an electric school bus prototype to LA Unified School District (LAUSD) Board Member Nick Melvoin.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

  • Support K-12 educators in effectively teaching and engaging girls in STEM in classroom or afterschool settings.

In what city and state is your solution team headquartered?

Los Angeles, CA, USA

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model that is rolled out in one or more communities

How many people does your solution currently serve?

LACI launched our Middle School Girls in STEM program in 2019 and has since served three successful cohorts. Our program currently serves 30 girls on average per cohort, in partnership with LAUSD schools (students are on average 78% Latinx, 21% Black, and 92% from low-income families). The program takes place during the girls’ fall semester from October - December in a hybrid format (both virtually and in-person) at our partner schools.

Over the course of three years, our MSGS in STEM program has served 81 students. However, at this point, we are evaluating plans to grow the program to serve more students through more LAUSD partner schools. In the long term (next 3-5 years), we hope to serve middle school girls across the U.S. by partnering with our peer incubators across the Clean Energy Incubator Network and Wells Fargo/NREL Innovation Incubator (IN2) Channel Partner Network, especially those organizations that serve LMI communities, emphasize equity for women entrepreneurs, and have access to makerspace facilities for prototype development.

Why are you applying to the Challenge?

LACI launched our Middle School Girls in STEM Program (MSGS) as part of our suite of programs committed to achieving gender equity in cleantech. Inspired by our Women in Cleantech Program, focused on recruiting and supporting more women to accelerate sustainable solutions, sector expertise and career growth, we realized that to build a pipeline of future women innovators, we needed to start during the K-12 years, when girls are forming their identities about who they can and cannot become.

In 2019, LACI received a planning grant to explore the feasibility and unique value proposition of our program. Results from our landscape analysis highlighted three gaps in current girls’ STEM programming, which support the need for this program: 1) no focus on environmental sustainability, 2) lack of on-site learning, and 3) no opportunities for sustained R&D. As part of our research, we also conducted focus groups with a coalition of corporate, university, and nonprofit partners as well as a group of middle school girls to collect feedback and inform the design of the program and relevance to real-world application.  

LACI is now looking toward the future to build upon our learnings, grow, and scale our program over the next 3-5 years. We believe our Middle School Girls in STEM program has a strong mission alignment with the Gender Equity in STEM grant opportunity offered by MIT Solve. With this alignment in goals and aspirations, we believe LACI and MIT Solve, and participating entities, will create a strong partnership that will benefit young girls who aspire to grow up to become STEM professionals.

As LACI plans for growth, we understand the value of feedback and support from institutions like MIT, which share the same mission to uplift girls and women in STEM. Through this grant opportunity and 6-month support program, we aim to gain additional insights, guidance, and mentorship from experienced professionals in the field. We are eager to connect with fellow mission-aligned organizations and tap into their expertise to enhance our program and initiatives focused on gender equity in STEM.

Furthermore, LACI is committed to making our program more accessible and inclusive. With the support of this grant, we aim to develop and refine our curriculum and ensure that it is scalable to as many schools as possible by implementing standardized content to make our program available to a larger number of girls, regardless of their background or location.

With the support of the Gender Equity in STEM grant, LACI’s seeks to establish a pipeline for girls in STEM careers, starting from middle school and extending through high school. We recognize the importance of early exposure and engagement in STEM to foster long-term interest and career aspirations. It is our goal to create a pathway for girls to pursue STEM education and ultimately empower girls to explore their potential, build confidence, and prepare them for successful careers at the intersection of STEM and Sustainability.

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Estelle Reyes, Senior Vice President - Enhancing Community

How is your Team Lead connected to the community or communities in which your project is based?

The Team Lead, Estelle Reyes, is a Filipina-American whose parents immigrated to the United States, and she has long been passionate about social justice, dedicating her work to remove barriers that people face because of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. A graduate of an all-girls high school, Estelle witnessed the advantages of an all-girls experience, including greater academic achievement, more confidence in STEM subject areas, and increased leadership skills. Estelle is also passionate about education, earning a Masters in Education and serving as a first grade teacher. LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM Program enables her to integrate her background in education, passion for gender-equity, and commitment to climate justice to engage tomorrow’s innovators in STEM + Sustainability. As a native Angeleno who is invested in her local community, Estelle’s personal mission is to see everyone thrive and achieve their full potential.

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

LACI developed our MSGS program in 2019, and our initial research and pilot program revealed three program elements that were not only essential to the success of young participants, but were found to be missing from other STEM programs across Los Angeles.

  1. No specific focus on environmental sustainability (most existing programs focused specifically on STEM, but not STEM + Sustainability)

  2. Lack of on-site learning (most existing programs were not located in real-world spaces where STEM professionals conduct their work)

  3. No opportunities for sustained R&D (most existing programs did not include opportunities for girls to create, receive feedback, and iterate, which are all critical components for engineering).

Diving deeper, the following eight categories were prioritized in the program evaluation process because of their 1) link to best practices in STEM education, 2) prevalence in high-performing STEM programs, and 3) explicit connection to feedback from our cohort of middle school girls.

Environmental Sustainability

Programming is anchored in practices of environmental sustainability - particularly the ways STEM competencies can be leveraged as tools to mitigate climate change while designing for a more sustainable future. 

Gender Gap

The programming is driven by an explicit mission to address the STEM gender gap by engaging young women in STEM fields through community building, skill building, leadership development, and experience beyond school walls. 

Hands-on Learning

Learning experiences within the program prioritize hands-on learning to deepen engagement while reaching a diverse range of learners. Students in this environment will be learning through exploration and personalized creation. 

On-site Exposure

Programming takes students out of the classroom and into the real-world spaces where STEM professionals conduct their work. This exposes students to a wide range of STEM fields while illustrating the relevance of what they’re learning in school.

Place-based Learning

Whether researching historical context, investigating current issues, or designing solutions for the future, learning is deeply rooted in where it takes place. Students learn how they can leverage their STEM education to become leaders in their community. 

Sustained R&D

Students engage in an extended cycle of research and development that creates space for feedback, design iteration, and implementation. This process mimics the ways STEM professionals engage in deep, sustained project development. 

Targets Low-income Communities

The programming is explicitly designed and implemented to reach students in historically underrepresented communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, in order to expand pathways to STEM careers. 

Technical Skill Development

The program intentionally facilitates technical skill development through real-world tools and applications until students reach an independence level where they are able to see a relevance for and apply that skill outside of the learning space.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

One Year Goal: Our goal for the next year is to engage at least 30 and up to 60 middle school girls from Low to Moderate Income (LMI) communities across Greater Los Angeles in exploring new STEM + Sustainability career pathways.

In addition to delivering our planned cohort for this fall, we are also developing a scaling plan outlining how to reach more girls through additional cohorts at new partner schools (e.g., adding a spring cohort in addition to our fall cohort). We are also exploring adding an alumnae program to extend the pipeline into high school, so that we can provide additional support and mentorship for girls who are pursuing STEM and environmental interests.

Five Year Goal: Our five-year goal is to design a scalable program that includes prototype development, peer collaboration, mentorship and community action, and that inspires at least 100 young girls annually to pursue STEM education and explore creating solutions for global climate change.  In order to ensure that the scaled-up model retains MSGS’s unique approach, we also would like to explore collaborating with LACI’s partners across the country in the National Coalition of Clean Energy Incubators for example, particularly those with makerspaces, to deliver the program to their local communities.

Beyond expanding our program regionally across Los Angeles, we are looking forward to exploring how to standardize our program content and scale our program more broadly, making it accessible to more girls beyond our geographic reach. We are eager to inspire more girls to think critically about sustainability challenges in their local communities and provide resources for them to become problem-solvers.

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

LACI has established the following goals, with accompanying outcomes and measurement methods, to be evaluated at the close of each annual cohort:

●  Goal #1: In order to build out a pipeline of future women innovators in the cleantech space, we want to ensure that the girls are introduced to cleantech concepts and opportunities at an earlier stage.

○  Outcome: At least 50% increase in knowledge around climate change and increased familiarity with clean technology

○  Measurement: Pre/Post-surveys

●  Goal #2: We want to help shift the girls’ mindsets by highlighting the relevance of their current STEM courses to climate crisis solutions and planting seeds for them to explore careers at the intersection of STEM + Sustainability.

○  Outcome: At least 80% of the girls see themselves as a STEM Professional in the future

○  Measurement: Post-surveys

●  Goal #3: LACI’s unique, experiential program aims to ensure that girls have an opportunity to apply the program knowledge they’ve gained towards a potential sustainability solution for their communities.

○  Outcome: 100% of the girls build critical 21st Century skills such as design thinking, prototype development, and sustained research and development

○  Measurement: Final project presentations on Demo Day

In addition to our goals for each of our program cohorts, over the next 1-5 years, we also aim to triple our annual student reach by engaging more students across Los Angeles and nationally through a more standardized and scalable program. We are currently serving 30 students annually and aim to be serving at least 100 students annually as we scale.

Describe in simple terms how and why you expect your solution to have an impact on the problem.

We expect LACI’s Middle School Girls in STEM to address the gender disparity in the STEM + Sustainability space because of the successful outcomes from each of our cohorts to date. Not only did girls learn about climate change and build their proficiency in cleantech, they also developed their confidence, resourcefulness, and persistence, as well as their ability to see themselves as STEM Professionals in the future.

Increased Knowledge about Climate Change and Clean Technology:

From our most recent cohort in 2022, when girls were asked to design an electric school bus to replace their traditional LAUSD school buses, 56% of students demonstrated an increase in content knowledge on cleantech and climate change. By the end of the program, 69% of students could compare and contrast an electric vehicle (EV) with an internal combustion engine (ICE). Overall proficiency was strongest on climate-related content (93%) including renewable resources and the impacts of fossil fuels. One of our participants shared, “I think I changed the way I see cars now. I now think about how they can be powered by renewable energy sources.” Another participant shared, “I now see different ways on how to change pollution and am interested in it more.

Perception about their ability to become a STEM Professional in the Future:

According to the Pre / Post-Surveys, 86% of students responded ‘Agree’ or ‘Strongly Agree’ to the question “I can be a STEM Professional if I want to be” - a 19% growth throughout the program. 68% of students responded ‘Agree’ or ‘Strongly Agree’ to the question “I know how to become a STEM Professional” with a similar growth of 21%. One of our participants shared, “Thank you for guiding us through the program and showing us that women can do just about anything a man could.”

Over the course of the program, the girls also had an opportunity to engage with 12 women cleantech founders and leaders who led by example and provided additional guidance and technical support as they developed their electric school buses.

Building Critical 21st Century Skills:

100% of students participating in the program participated in extended research & development on their prototypes, with 93% of students participating in Demo Day in-person and 7% engaging virtually. According to the Pre / Post Surveys, 89% of students can describe the purpose of prototyping. One of our participants shared, “We learned that failure doesn’t mean giving up, it means finding another solution.”

If your solution is tech-based, describe the core technology that powers your solution.


In which US states does your solution currently operate?


In which US states will your solution be operating within the next year?


Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?


How many people work on your solution team?

We currently have four team members working on our solution team:

  1. Estelle Reyes, SVP, Enhancing Community (LACI)

  2. Sharon Segado, Senior Workforce Development Manager (LACI)

  3. Brenda Solorio, Director of Community Engagement (LACI)

  4. Katy Cleminson, Curriculum Consultant (Intrepid Schools)

Our team collaborates together on program design, curriculum development, teacher training, mentor engagement, and prototype development for each of our cohorts.

How long have you been working on your solution?

We have been working on our Middle School Girls in STEM Program for 4 years. In 2019, we received a Planning Grant to explore the feasibility and unique value proposition of our program. We also conducted focus groups with both a coalition of corporate, university, and nonprofit partners as well as a group of middle school girls to collect feedback and inform the design of the program and relevance to real-world application.  With our updated program design, we have hosted 3 cohorts of the program (2020 | 2021 | 2022), and are looking forward to continuing to grow and scale.

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

As part of LACI’s mission to build an inclusive green economy, we developed a Middle School Girls in STEM program to promote representation and gender equity in the cleantech space.  We have a specific focus on ensuring women, particularly from historically marginalized communities, have a seat at the table and are included in every cleantech stage -- from ideation, to workforce, to deployment.  

Diversity, equity, and inclusivity is at the core of LACI’s values. We strive to ensure all of our work is Catalytic, Systemic, Inclusive, and Impact-Oriented.

  • Catalytic: as changemakers we encourage innovation by convening leaders and entrepreneurs to create solutions, partnerships and programs; 

  • Systemic: we use a holistic and systems-based approach to leverage resources and accelerate progress; 

  • Inclusive: we work to ensure Diversity, Equity and Inclusion of underrepresented populations in the green economy; and 

  • Impact-Oriented: we aim to drive economic, social and environmental results

LACI’s programs are developed at the intersection of climate and racial justice. Since we launched our Diversity & Inclusion initiative in 2016, we have recruited more underrepresented founders into all of our small business and startup programs, created an Impact Framework tied to an equity earnback program to financially value our companies’ impact (environmental, economic, and social), and integrated DEI into our curriculum and programmatic support.

In order to accomplish this programmatic impact, we work to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace at LACI. When we first launched our Diversity & Inclusion initiative, one challenge we faced was having our work siloed by our D&I Team, rather than integrated and operationalized throughout the organization. We are now focused on creating an Internal Culture Action Plan to demonstrate our organizational commitment to DEI. LACI intentionally recruits talent from underrepresented groups to join our team (53% of our team is female and 48% are people of color), and we administer an annual survey on the Culture Amp platform to track employee engagement and inclusion (our highest employee score was around “contribution to a broader purpose”).

Furthermore, LACI deploys cleantech pilots in disadvantaged communities through the Zero Emission Mobility Pilot Fund. These pilots have brought technology such as electric vehicle (EV) car sharing, zero emission cargo delivery, and e-bikes to frontline communities that are disproportionately impacted by climate change and poor air quality including San Pedro, Pacoima, and South LA (Leimert Park). These pilots provide an important step in the evolution of clean and equitable transportation options.

Your Business Model & Funding

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)

Solution Team

  • Paul Giacomazzi Grants Development Coordinator, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator
  • Estelle Reyes SVP, Enhancing Community, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator
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