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High-school girls invent a life-preserver T-shirt for toddlers

Image of T-shirt
An all-girl team of high-schoolers in Arizona will receive up to $10,000 to develop their invention of a T-shirt that doubles as a life preserver for toddlers.MIT-Lemelson InvenTeams

An all-girl team of high school students has invented a comfy and cozy T-shirt equipped with a mechanism that automatically inflates it into a life preserver when it gets soaking wet.

Called the Watawescue, the T-shirt is intended for children age 2 to 4 to wear while they are playing near a swimming pool. 

“If the child falls in the water in an accident, the mechanism will go off and the inflatable bladder will inflate below the arms,” Briana “BB” Soto, a senior at the Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona, told NBC News.

Soto and her team at GLAAZ are among 16 teams selected for the 2012-2013 InvenTeams Program, a Lemelson-MIT initiative to get high-school students excited about invention and careers in math and science.

The girls will receive up to $10,000 to develop their T-shirt – and they'll get advice from industry and academic mentors in their community. Each of the other 15 teams will win similar support for their bright ideas.

Inflatable bladder

The GLAAZ team came up with the Watawescue concept after looking at the needs of their community. In the first six months of 2012, Soto noted, there were 46 drowning deaths in Arizona. Fifteen of the victims were children.

“It was a great opportunity for us to invent something that will actually help,” she said.

The inflation bladder is sewn into a mesh fabric that wraps under the arms like an inner tube. A carbon-dioxide cartridge and alarm mechanism are stored in a small pouch on the back of the T-shirt. 

The cartridge is sealed with a bobbin that dissolves upon immersion in water. As it dissolves, the compressed gas passes through a vibrating mechanism to produce a loud sound as it inflates the tube.

The alarm should alert nearby parents or guardians while the tube keeps the toddler afloat. It is not intended to replace a life jacket, Soto said, but should help keep children safe when playing near pools.

The tube will inflate only if the toddler gets soaked. Running under a sprinkler or spilling milk on the shirt wouldn't provide enough liquid to dissolve the bobbin, keeping accidentally puffy shirts to a minimum.

More women in science

Three of the 16 InvenTeams selected this year are from all-girl schools, an intentional push to encourage more women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, a broad scope known as STEM.

Women currently hold less than 25 percent of STEM-related jobs and hold a correspondingly low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce

“The gender gap within STEM fields can be attributed, in part, to the need for more role models in related careers,” Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelsom-MIT Program, said in a news release announcing this year’s teams.

The Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona is the state’s first and only public single-gender school in the state. It serves predominantly low-income students: 81 percent come from families at or below the federal poverty level.

Participation in InvenTeams is “an opportunity for us to demystify science for our girls,” Yvonne Watterson, the school's head, told NBC News.

As an all-girls school, she added, faculty can offer specific support to help women succeed in STEM fields. 

“They would not be able to get that anywhere else because the cost of a private, single-gender education is cost prohibitive,” she said.

In June 2013, the teams will showcase their projects at MIT. To learn more, visit the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams website

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.