Lydia Denton might be young, but that’s not stopping her from saving lives and making an impact in the world.
The 12-year-old girl from North Carolina was recently named the winner of CITGO’s Fueling Education Student Challenge, where she earned $20,000 after creating the winning invention of a car seat device that detects when babies have been left in a hot car and can prevent them from dying.
“Winning the money was cool, but I really care about saving lives,” Lydia tells PEOPLE. “My first thought was, ‘Maybe no babies will die this summer!'”
The soon-to-be seventh grader says she became inspired to make the invention after watching the news and seeing that babies were being left in hot cars, often by accident.
“I did some research and saw that it happened a lot and that it wasn’t just neglectful parents,” she explains. “I got really upset and wanted to try and help.”
“At first, I thought about raising money for the families, but that wouldn’t fix the problem. I wanted to invent something that could prevent the deaths from happening,” she adds. “My mom has a saying: ‘Stop complaining and do something about it.’ Complaining or being sad doesn’t solve the problem, we have to take action to make a change.”
Lydia did exactly that. She began researching what was already on the market, before figuring out what the problem was and how she could fix it.
“What I wanted was a device that had the ability to get 911 there to save the baby if a parent didn’t respond,” she shares. “I also wanted something everyone could afford.”
A current student at a Title 1 school, Lydia notes that while most “new cars come with warnings and smart car seats,” many of her friends and family “don’t have hundreds of dollars to buy a new car or a very expensive car seat.”
“Also, babies grow!” she adds. “I wanted it to be a portable thing that you could move from one car seat to the next and keep using.”
After much thought, Lydia created the first prototype of her invention, Beat The Heat Car Seat. The device works through a pressure pad under the car seat cover, which can sense weight over 5 lbs. When a baby is in the seat, the system starts itself up and monitors the temperature.
If the temperature reaches above 102 degrees, the seat will set off an alarm along with a warning on the LCD display. A text will also be sent to the parent’s phone. If the parent does not reset the button within 60 seconds, a message is sent to 911 with the built-in GPS chip, called an Arduino, sending the car’s location to emergency services.
Though the device works seamlessly now — Lydia notes they tested it with their local 911 center and have made improvements since the CITGO contest — getting to that point was quite a challenge.
“It was so frustrating! It took over 100 tries to get it working,” she says, crediting her science teacher mom, Covey, and her older brother for helping her improve and fix the invention.
She also says her younger sister was “an awesome encourager” who provided hugs, snacks and company whenever she felt “frustrated or discouraged.”
When she learned that her invention had won this year’s CITGO Fueling Education Student Challenge, Lydia says she was genuinely shocked, despite competing in and placing in four other national science competitions this spring.
“I was so excited. I didn’t think I would win. So many kids invent so many things and I know that my ideas aren’t always the best,” Lydia recalls, adding that she is saving the $20,000 for college but allotted $100 for a shopping spree.
Currently, Lydia is working with a mentor to teach her about business and help her manufacture her device. She hopes to sell it in a store one day, which her mentor predicts will retail for about $40, or have baby brands like Graco pick it up.
She also has plans to keep inventing items that can help others. One of those ideas includes a device to detect an allergen or allergic response before it worsens. (Lydia is allergic to some of the ingredients in lotions, which cause hives and throat swells.)
“I have so many ideas in my brain just bouncing around. Some are good, some are not good. I write them down or tell my mom and she writes them down,” she says. “I have lots of ideas for future projects, but the one that I am most interested in is for allergies.”
For those who may become inspired by her story, Lydia has one message: “Don’t think that you have to accept things in the world. If there is something that bothers you, think of ways to make it better!”
“Sometimes that means changing your attitude, but sometimes that means an invention,” she adds. “You’ve got to push and learn and you can’t give up!”