Only a tiny fraction of women in American universities are studying engineering. And that's a concern for educators and industry experts, who point to a growing need for engineers and technology specialists. So, many programs have been developed to get girls interested in science and technology before they get to college. STEPS is one of these programs that aims at bringing more women into these fields.
Mahati Chintapalli, 17, is a high school senior in Minneapolis. She hasn't yet decided what profession she will pursue in the future, but she's thinking about majoring in math and engineering. She discovered she liked the subjects five years ago, at a summer camp at St. Thomas University.
"It was the best camp I've been to. I had a lot of fun," she says. "It was a very social environment, a fun environment but I also learned a lot."
That's the idea behind STEPS - Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer camp. During the weeklong session, girls live on campus and participate in a variety of hands-on workshops. During her first summer at STEPS, Mahati and her fellow campers designed, manufactured and flew a radio-controlled airplane.
"We did that through going through lab stations, manufacturing some of the parts, assembling them and learning how to use different tools," she says. "It wasn't like a school. There were no tests or note taking, but we had some lecture pieces and some experiment pieces. Like in chemistry, we tested fuels that could be used for the airplane."
This past summer, Mahati attended the advanced STEPS camp.
"It was a different program," she says. "We built small robots. We learned about electronics and alternative energy sources in that camp."
STEPS camp for girls began 10 years ago at the University of Wisconsin. It's been replicated at schools in South Dakota, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.
"We began our campus 7 years ago," Ronald Bennett, dean of St. Thomas University's School of Engineering, says. "The goal is to get girls at age 12, when they are at sixth grade and just going into seventh. They are still curious. They are open. They are willing to learn."
Dean Bennett is one of the camp's advocates.
"It brings girls together, some from the suburbs, some from the inner city," he says. "They come strangers on Sunday, and by Wednesday, they are best friends. Through building this airplane and going through a variety of other classes, they become more confident in using their tools. They take great pride in being able to build this thing from scratch. They develop pride, confidence and excitement. They see some possibilities they have never thought about before."
One of those possibilities, Bennett says, is pursuing a career in engineering, which is the ultimate goal of the program.
"Over all in America, about 10 percent of the engineering workforce, is women," he says. "We're on a verge, some say, of seeing quite a sharp fall because of the retirements of a number of engineers that are in their 60s who are leaving the profession. There are not nearly as many coming in. So we think there is a need for more women particularly, and more diverse populations because the diversity they bring helps the innovation and creativity in the profession."
Attracting girls to engineering requires a different approach than for boys, according to Jan Hansen, who teaches science methods for educators at St. Thomas. She says STEPS allows girls to learn in a non-competitive and cooperative atmosphere that's also stimulating and fun.
"A lot of time what girls consider fun is something related to human interest, being able to touch equipment, being able to carry out plans and projects where they get to handle large machinery and get to handle things like an airplane and get actually to fly it," she says.
Although long-term evaluation of STEPS's influence on girls' career choices is still in progress, Hensen says the camp seems to be making a difference.
"The pre-camp data showed that girls had certain attitudes about science, technology, engineering and mathematics," she says, explaining they asked the girls questions about those fields such as: "Can girls do this? Do you know any females in these roles? What sorts of applications do you see in this? And the exciting thing was when we did the post analysis, we found that they had made some solid gains in those areas that I mentioned, that they could now name some females that were in what we call a non-traditional role, that they could handle these machines and some of the equipment, that the girls just in general found the whole field more inviting."
STEPS camp advocates hope data like that will encourage other universities to join the program.