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

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 eighth year at St. Thomas. About 160 girls participate in the free camp each summer, or about 40 in each of the four weeklong sessions. The camps started yesterday, and when the final session ends July 26, more than 1,260 girls will have participated in the camps since the program came to St. Thomas in 2000.

“We know that young people start making career decisions around sixth or seventh grade,” said Dr. Ronald Bennett, dean of the School of Engineering at St. Thomas. “We also know that when it comes to earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering, men outnumber women by five to one. The difference is even more pronounced in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering. Our ultimate goal in hosting the STEPS program is to encourage young women to consider careers in these fields. Plus, it’s a lot of fun for them, and for us.”

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, 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.

Dr. Kaye Smith, the School of Engineering ’s 3M Chair Fellow and a former 3M research engineer, 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, 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 at: