It’s called “fly night” and for the 40 sixth-grade girls, it’s the highlight of their camp at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering where they have just spent a week learning to build and fly model airplanes with 6-foot wingspans.
Since the STEPS camps (Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer camp for girls) started 13 years ago, girls from throughout Minnesota have built more than 3,000 of the airplanes. Fly night is when they find out if they got it right.
“Well they all fly,” said STEPS director Kelly Brown, “but yes, there are some crashes too … especially if it’s really windy.”
Whether or not the planes make it back for a perfect landing, the real goal of the free camp is to foster an interest in science and engineering.
“We know that young people start making career decisions around sixth or seventh grade,” Brown said. “We also know that for those working in the fields of science, technology and math, men outnumber women four to one. Our camps encourage young women to consider careers in these fields. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.”
Mahati Chintapalli, now completing her doctorate in material science at the University of California-Berkeley and a graduate of the first STEPS camp in 2000, put it this way: “I feel lucky that I get to do real science every day and I’m reminded of the feeling I first experienced at STEPS.”
St. Thomas holds six of the weeklong camp sessions each summer. The campers, who live in campus dorms during their stay, take workshops on computer programming and blogging, electronics, physics, renewable energy, machining and manufacturing processes.
Working in the School of Engineering’s labs, they create their 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.
And to increase their success on fly night, they log time with a flight simulator to become familiar with the remote-control devices they’ll use to fly their planes.
On Wednesday nights during the summer, the campers pack up their planes and head to the 3M Fly Field in Cottage Grove. With the help of volunteers from two model airplane clubs -- Tri-Valley Radio Control Flyers and the 3M Radio Control Fly Guys -- the girls attach motors to their planes, grab the controls, and hope for the best.
There are two more fly nights this summer. They will be held from about 6 to 8:30 p.m. on the Wednesdays of July 24 and 31. 3M Fly Field is located at 6221 Washington County Highway 19, Collage Grove, MN 55016 (click for Google map).
Read more about the St. Thomas STEPS program and watch a video.