Girls build airplanes and, hopefully, an interest in science and engineering

By the end of their week at an unusual summer camp at the University of St. Thomas, seventh-grade girls from throughout Minnesota will have built and flown their own radio-controlled model airplanes.

But the camp organizers hope something else will take flight, too … an interest in science and engineering.

STEPS (Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer camp for girls) is underway for the seventh year at St. Thomas.

About 160 girls participate in the free camp each summer, or about 40 in each five-day session. When the final session ends July 27, more than 1,100 girls will have participated in the camps since the program came to St. Thomas in 2000.

This year, more than 1,000 girls are participating in a dozen STEPS camps throughout the country, according to Bart Aslin, chief foundation officer of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation (SME-EF). The SME-Education Foundation provides academic institutions with the initial training and curriculum materials to implement STEPS camps.

“Our foundation supports programs like STEPS to influence young women and minorities to pursue career opportunities in manufacturing, science, engineering and technology. Studies show that young people make their scholastic career decisions around sixth or seventh grade and the camps give them an opportunity to explore their interests,” Aslin said. “The ultimate goal is to increase the number of students choosing these careers.”

Statistics released recently by the nonprofit organization Engineers Dedicated to a Better Tomorrow show that in the United States only about 20 percent of the students earning bachelor’s degrees in physics, computer science, engineering and engineering technology are women. In the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering, only about 14 percent of the graduates are women.

The girls attending the St. Thomas program this summer, about a third of whom are minority students, live on campus and take classes in plastics, electricity, machining, computer-aided design, assembly, Web design, chemistry, physics, engineering and robotics.

They create their airplanes from start to finish: using a hot-wire saw, they cut wings from sturdy Styrofoam, assemble the fuselage, cut and bend aluminum for the rudder and elevators, thermoform the canopy, and decorate and cover the plane’s exterior.

They also log computer time with a flight simulator to become familiar with the remote-control devices they’ll use to fly their planes.

Their work is put to the test on Wednesday evenings, also called “fly nights,” when the girls head south to Rosemount where the planes are fitted with gas engines and flown with the help of volunteers from the Tri-Valley Radio Control Flyers.

Matt Miller, a principal test engineer at Medtronic Inc., is the STEPS camp coordinator. The camp director, Marika Staloch, started with the program in 2000 as a counselor.

Sponsors of this year’s camp are the Medtronic Foundation, Lockheed Martin, 3M Foundation, Xcel Energy, Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, ADC Telecommunications, Guidant, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Peregrine Capital Management, Pentair Foundation, Tri-Valley Radio Control Flyers, Emerson Process Management Rosemont, Liberty Carton Co., Twin City Die Castings Co. and the St. Thomas School of Engineering.

More information about the program can be found on the Web: http://www.stthomas.edu/engineering/STEPS/.