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How One Class Won $145,000 by Fighting California's Drought

Luis Ruelas (Bay Area '13) and his students' innovative project combating the California water drought earned them award money from Samsung and the National Environmental Education Foundation.

Luis Ruelas And His Engineering Students

By The TFA Editorial Team

June 10, 2015

As California continues its second year in a State of Emergency due to severe drought conditions and gears up for a potential fifth year of drought, the state’s new mandatory 25 percent reduction in urban water usage has many residents wondering how they’ll achieve such cuts.

Teach For America corps member Luis Ruelas (Bay Area '13) and his engineering students at San Jose’s Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School decided to tackle the challenge head on, creating a grey water system that they say will reduce household water use by up to 37 percent.

The team of engineering students at Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School work on their grey water system, which is designed to cut household water consumption by up to an astounding 37 percent.

Their “Don’t Waste a Drop” project was selected from a pool of over 3,000 applicants to be named one of five national winners of Samsung’s Solve For Tomorrow Competition—earning their school $120,000 worth of Samsung technology. The National Environmental Education Foundation also bestowed upon them the Environmental Sustainability Innovation Award, which includes an additional $25,000 award.

When designing their grey water system, Luis and his students—who attend school in a low-income community—kept cost and accessibility at the forefront of their minds. Their design, which redirects excess water from the washing machine and shower to flush toilets, requires minimal plumbing modifications and one electrical outlet to plug in the pump. The team kept building costs under $600 and plan to make their design available online for their community to recreate and install in their homes.

"One of the greatest needs in our community is to graduate engineers, scientists and doctors," says Ruelas, who majored in materials engineering at nearby San Jose State University. “Our community has specific needs which can best be addressed by people who understand the community and have a vested interest. Participating in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest and in the engineering classes offered at our school gives our students an edge by exposing them to the career opportunities available in the STEM fields.

"As a member of the community, I am doing my part in developing the talent who in the future will carry our people forward. I am proud to have a part in this project where students, parents, and staff are working together for the benefit of all.”

 Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School Project Video

Ruelas leads a team of nine freshmen and sophomore students: Maya Diaz, Michelle Duong, Vicky Parra, Esmeralda Yepez, Sebastian Aguilar, Jaime Sanchez, Paul Rocha, Nikola Sokol, and Pedro Castillo.

"Being in this club and competition has given us so many opportunities and opened so many doors for us that we would have never thought were possible," says Diaz, a 10th-grader at DCP. "We went to New York and visited colleges that we've only heard about in school, and we went places I've only seen in the movies.

"This competition has really shown me that I can uplift my community using STEM, and potentially solve problems we face every day."

Downtown College Prep prepares first-generation students for college success. Alum Rock High School plans to build on the success of this program to develop a STEM pipeline that empowers and prepares more women and students of color for careers in the field.