STEPS into the future

A new summer camp at St. Thomas helped girls' aspirations take flight

A penny that falls off the Empire State Building would injure someone on the street below — not true. That’s one of the fallacies that physics teacher Linda Morey likes to correct. (Coins tumble as they fall and experience substantial air resistance.) Another fallacy is that physics is boring, or so most 12-year-old girls might say.

Morey shared her love of physics with 160 seventh-grade girls at STEPS (Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer) camp for girls, a free program sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, last summer at St. Thomas.

"Girls this age like to be entertained so they’re more receptive to some of the goofy things I try," Morey said. Like how they learn her name "in physics" as she calls it. They stand, stomp one foot while raising their other hand and sing out "LINDA!" in an operatic voice.

Morey, who retired from the Air Force after 21 years, was the first woman civil engineer on active duty in the Air Force and the first woman to teach engineering at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

"Every time you breathe, you’re like a turkey baster," she says, loudly breathing in air through her mouth. "You create low pressure and water (or air) is sucked in. And, as an airplane moves through the air, its wings create low pressure that sucks the airplane up into the air."

She helped the girls learn the physics behind their main project for the week: constructing and flying a remote-control airplane. She is one of a dozen women and men engineers who wanted to be involved in the project as teachers or mentors to the students.

STEPS’ goal is to reach girls early enough to influence their choices of math, science and technical courses in middle and high school, prepare them to succeed in college-level engineering programs and lead them into careers in manufacturing, engineering and technology. These are high-paying jobs that want women employees; there just aren’t enough candidates with the proper training.

"This year there were 120,000 entry-level engineering jobs and only 60,000 engineering graduates — that’s a huge gap," said Dr. Ron Bennett, chairman of St. Thomas’ Engineering and Technology Manage-ment Department. "And women are vastly underrepresented in all ranks of engineering; they comprise perhaps only 10 percent."

Camp participants, mostly from the metro area, took classes in plastics, packaging, combustion, Web design, math, chemistry, physics and engineering. They also experienced college life by living in a residence hall and eating on campus during the one-week camps.

Girls this age may like to be entertained, but they also like to be challenged.

Take, for instance, camp participant Ariana Reese, 12, who "gets bored with things that are too easy," according to her mother, Pamela, who lives in St. Paul with her two daughters.

"I want to be an engineer when I grow up," Ariana said. "My mom works on engines at the Ford plant. I visited her on Take Your Daughters to Work Day and thought it was interesting. I asked her if I could take an engine apart and she said no, but maybe I should become an engineer and I said, ‘Maybe I will.’" That was when Ariana was 10.

Pamela chose STEPS because she wanted to encourage Ariana’s interests. "The choices we make today affect our future. Ariana wants something better than my job," said Pamela, who has worked at Ford for 22 years. "She can do anything she wants. If she wants to go into music, fine. If she wants to go into math or science, great, but she has to apply herself. If she’s really interested in engineering, the companies that sponsor this camp may be more interested in her because of her participation in STEPS."

The seventh-grade girls followed 14 steps to assemble an airplane: they cut styrofoam wings with a hot-wire saw and glued the sections together, assembled the fuselage with foam core and a router, cut and bent aluminum strips for the rudder and elevator, thermoformed the canopy, and covered the exterior with contact paper (to help with aerodynamics). Of course they also decorated the planes with stickers and markers, writing names such as Proud Cloud, Far Star, Looper, Plane Jane or simply Girls Rule!

On flight nights (Wednesdays), the girls loaded onto a bus and headed to Rosemount where volunteers at the Tri-Valley Radio Control Club fitted the planes with small gas-powered engines and stood by each girl’s side, both holding remote controls, to help the planes take off and land.

After each plane landed, applause rang out from parents, friends, camp counselors and teachers who had come to witness the flights.

"I had a smooth flight. Everyone was complimentary and I felt good," said 13-year-old Heather We-niger from Eagan.

Weniger, who always has been interested in technology, chemistry and other sciences, said she likes to help her dad fix the car. "I have really small hands so I can reach into small places," she smiled.

"Before I came to camp, I didn’t really know the difference between scientists and engineers. At first I had wanted to be a scientist, but now I want to be an engineer. In camp they made the analogy of: a farmer is to a cook, as a scientist is to an engineer — one grows the things and one gets to work with them — and I want to not just discover things, but to work with them."

The St. Thomas STEPS camp was made possible through the efforts of many Engineering and Technology Manage-ment Department members and the larger community.

"I’ve never seen a project that has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the faculty, staff, students, parents and industry like this project," said department chairman Bennett.

Alumnus Anne Coldwell volunteered to coordinate the camp at St. Thomas. Coldwell, manager of quality and reliability engineering at Medtronic, received her master’s degree in manufacturing systems from St. Thomas in 1992. She gathered university faculty, staff, professionals working in the sciences, alumni and other volunteers to help with the program.

"I was thrilled to see that the girls seemed to enjoy themselves," Coldwell said. "They didn’t like just having fun; they really liked the classes. They liked the work and were proud of themselves.

"I think the camp gave the girls some self-confidence in doing hands-on things," she continued. "Sometimes girls tend to step back and let boys do the hands-on experiments in the classroom."

Two other alumni, Audrey Geib and Heather Whalton, were camp co-directors who coordinated the girls’ day-to-day activities. Geib graduated in May with a double major in social studies and theology with a minor in secondary education. Whalton ’98 is a seventh-grade American history teacher at Black Hawk Middle School in Eagan.

Volunteer mentors helped the girls learn communication and problem-solving skills. The 18 mentors, mostly women, represented structural, industrial, chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering professions. The mentors plan to keep in touch with the participants and make themselves available to the girls throughout the year.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation is implementing STEPS with a $372,000 Bush Foundation grant, which is split three ways: among St. Thomas, Alexandria Technical College, and the University of Minnesota. Alexandria also hosted a STEPS camp for seventh-grade girls. The U of M hosted an advanced STEPS for girls in 10th and 11th grades. At least one-third of the participants must be people of color.

The $112,500 grant given to St. Thomas’ Engineering and Technology Management Department to implement STEPS will be provided over three years on a declining scale, so St. Thomas will need to raise more money each year for the program. This year, the two main donors were ADC and Medtronic. Other companies that donated components, goods or services were Liberty Carton, Twin City Die and Casting, Dunwoody Institute, Northern Precision and 3M.

The Minnesota STEPS program will be used as a model for a $10 million initiative involving 11 states over six years and reaching more than 30,000 students. STEPS will be implemented by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation.

Opportunities for girls to go into careers in engineering, technology and manufacturing are looking up — literally. The sky is the limit.

St. Thomas will offer STEPS again next summer, starting July 15. For more information, call (651) 962-5750.