A critical component of educating girls is building their
self confidence. Historically, girls are not encouraged in the same ways as boys
especially when it comes to a traditionally male academic pursuit â math and
The inspiring STEPS
program founded at the University
of Wisconsin at Stout answered that call a dozen years ago and is still
going strong. STEPS stands for
Science, Technology, and Engineering Preview summer camp. For four weeks each
summer, 160 12-year-old girls spend five days in groups of 40 learning about
electronics, physics, motors, metal casting and bending, plastics
thermo-forming and how computers work. Each student pays $300 tuition (cost per
student is $650) and disadvantaged youths, who make up a quarter of the group,
attend for free. They all gain insight into the college campus at an early age.
For the past two years, campers have each built from scratch
a radio-controlled speed boat which they race at the end of their stay in a
brand-new manmade water course in a large lab. They built and flew
radio-controlled airplanes in the program's first decade.
"We got sort of tired of the airplanes and the process is too
sophisticated," says STEPS
indefatigable program director and founder Peter Heimdahl. Officials do not
recite how many campers eventually pursue engineering, but they have determined STEPS graduates are 9.5 times
more likely to enter engineering than non-campers.
"We work with each instructor to make sure we meet the
mission and that it's appropriate for girls 12 to 13. STEPS has got to be pedagogically
correct," says Brenda Puck, Stout's STEPS
activities director. "We want to make (STEPS) interesting and attractive to young women
and give them role models and mentors."
Heimdahl started it all born
out of a different need â finding qualified female engineering instructors.
Frustrated when he could not find them when he was associate dean at Stout, Heimdahl
came up with the idea for the university to grow their own.
"Pete is the pioneer. He put
together the STEPS curriculum. (Students) learn the wonders of math, science and manufacturing and now they have been at
it for 12 years," says Bart Aslin, director of the Society
for Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Educational Foundation (SME-EF). SME
liked the idea so much, it became the program's first sponsor and has since
been joined by blue-blooded companies such as 3M, Caterpillar, Phillips
Plastics, Ford, Alcoa and Target.
No one can explain the program's origins better
than Heimdahl, who recently retired from Stout. Originally an Army field
artilleryman, Heimdahl retired from West Point
in 1992 as a Brigadier General where he headed the Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department. A follow-up email to this reporter's visit to the program
drew this response:
started a new Manufacturing Engineering program at Stout in 1994. We had
to hire new engineering faculty as a result. We had several searches
going on, and when I went to the chancellor with the lists of finalists, he
didn't like them because there were no women in the pools. After a
fruitless search for qualified women candidates, I finally made a deal with the
chancellor that we would have to grow our own engineering faculty and start
influencing them before they got into middle school. That was the
beginning of STEPS."
Everyone celebrates when a STEPS camper pursues an engineering
career, but there's a larger goal. "STEPS
boosts their self-confidence so they can do anything in life," says Heimdahl. Indeed,
page at the STEPS
website captures the intensity and transformational effects of the
Nora Perkoff from Richland,
WI, was one young woman deeply
influenced by STEPS.
A year too old, she so badly wanted in the STEPS camp she fibbed about her
age. "I cried when I graduated from STEPS
because I did not want to leave," she says. After being a camper, she came back
into the advanced STEPS
program as a 15-year-old and served as a junior counselor. She served one summer as a lab assistant in the plastics activity and was elevated to the position of counselor of a ten-camper team this summer. She enrolled this fall at Stout as a student in the Manufacturing Engineering program.
The Stout program has been so successful, the SME
Education Foundation replicated the model nationwide into Gateway
Camps for elementary school students and Gateway
Academies for both middle school boys and girls. There are 179 academies in
27 states involving 4,000 kids each summer with expansion plans to 250 Academies
programs by 2010.
"The program helps break down
stereotypes that young girls and minorities find at that age," says Aslin. "We
want every child in America
to experience this, knowing full well they won't all become engineers and
scientists. A great aspect of what Pete teaches is teamwork. Everyone has
different skills and abilities, but we have to work in teams to get something
The girls divide into teams of ten and move through several
workstation areas taught by qualified instructors. They include thermo-forming to
make the plastic boat body, building electric motors, making aluminum castings and
disassembling and rebuilding computers. The girls are eager and highly engaged
as this reporter witnessed and as evidenced in the STEPs
web pages complete with videos and blogs.
up new opportunities. I did not know there was so much to engineering. It's
kind of neat to do manufacturing and plastics. My sister came here and when I
saw the pictures, I wanted to do it," says 16-year-old Andrea Marten, a lab assistant in plastics and boat assembly.