Free engineering camp celebrates its 10th year of giving local girls a taste of science

Free engineering camp celebrates 10 years of giving local girls a taste of science

This summer, STEPS (Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer camp for girls) celebrates its 10th year at the University of St. Thomas.

A happy STEPS camper was proud of her model airplane.

About 200 girls participate in the free camp each summer, or about 40 in each of the five weeklong sessions. By the end of the final session on July 30, more than 1,600 girls will have participated in the camps since the program came to St. Thomas in 2000.

Dr. Kaye Smith, the School of Engineering's 3M Chair Fellow and a former 3M research engineer, is the STEPS project director and has two children in their early teens. She emphasizes that for girls, the year after sixth grade is "the year they grow up" and marks a "big transition" in their intellectual development.

The girls attending the St. Thomas program this summer live on campus and take classes in plastics, electricity, machining, computer-aided design, assembly, Web design, chemistry, physics, engineering and robotics. There even is a "MacGyver" course, taught three times on Monday mornings, in which the campers create explosions using dry ice.

Campers in the advanced camp June 21-25 created rockets from start to finish using soda bottles and filling them with water. Bike pumps were used to create pressure within the bottles, propelling them skyward. Girls in this camp, which has a focus on sustainability, are entering ninth grade and have already completed the basic STEPS program.

Girls in the basic STEPS camp, which began June 28 and continue through July 30, create airplanes from start to finish: using a hot-wire saw, they cut wings from sturdy Styrofoam; assemble the fuselage; cut, bend and install aluminum parts for the rudder and elevators; thermoform the canopy; and finally 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.

The courses have a focus on sustainability, says Smith, and 95 percent of the classes are taught by paid Twin Cities teachers; however some industry experts also are in the mix, one of whom works developing wind farms.

Now STEPS has been around long enough to see some of its first campers now serve as camp counselors. One of those campers is Dejurnett Prioleau, a senior applied mathematics majors at the University of St. Thomas. Prioleau, who attended the basic camp in 1999 and the advanced camp in 2001, counts this summer as her third as a STEPS counselor. Prioleau attributes her career pursuits to her experience in the STEPS program as a teen and hopes to pass her enthusiasm onto the next generation of female scientists. "As a STEPS camp counselor I really want these girls to enjoy what they're doing, learn a lot and also to gain an interest in the science, technology and math fields. There are so few women in these fields, and that needs to change," she says.

Sponsors of this year's camp are the Medtronic Foundation, Lockheed Martin, 3M Foundation, Xcel Energy, Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, Peregrine Capital Management, Pentair Foundation, Tri-Valley Radio Control Flyers, Ecolab, Emerson Process Management Rosemount, STEM, H.B. Fuller, Liberty Carton Company, Twin City Die Castings Company, Donaldson Filtration Solutions and the St. Thomas School of Engineering.

More information about the program can be found on the Web at: