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Making engineering a women's domain
By Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
July 19, 2001
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Critical shortages of engineering graduates are prompting those in the field to turn their efforts toward making the occupation more attractive to girls and women. To that end, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers is sponsoring free, week-long summer engineering camps for girls grades 6 through 12 in the Twin Cities and in Alexandria. One of the camps for sixth grade girls, started this week at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Retired insurance executive John Bombardo poses with student Sophal Pho after test flying the plane she built. See more images documenting the building of the planes.
Over the next month, about 160 girls will take part in the Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer Camp - STEPS - at the University of St. Thomas. The first group of 40 girls will spend a week building and flying their own remote control planes.

Ron Bennett, director of manufacturing and engineering at the university, says the plane building task is an effective hands-on project that introduces the girls to some basic principles. "This is the backbone component of the STEPS program for these 6th grade girls," he says. "To give them an idea of what engineering is about, and to help them build confidence in their ability to use tools, and take thought processes and translate them into real work. And it's much like the studio arts kind of approach of sculpting and painting."

The tactile aspect of the plane building is of particular interest to Shannon Leach, 12, from St. Paul. "You never get to melt Styrofoam® at school, and you never get to use hot wires. So it's really fun to go on one of these camps where you can actually see how things are made," she says.

Engineering industry experts say in 1999, there were 120,000 entry level engineering jobs available nationally. But only 60,000 students graduated with engineering degrees. The hope is that women will help meet that demand.

Though women are increasingly well-represented in the fields of law and medicine, according to Aviva Breen, director of the state's legislative commission on the status of women, most young women still choose nursing, teaching, or other traditionally female jobs.

Breen says it hasn't been easy to get girls interested in engineering and keep them interested. She's not sure why that is, but, she says career choices are culturally based "unless they're exposed to something else, encouraged to do other things, mentored by somebody," she says. "Often women go into field that people in their family are in, so sometimes that encourages them to go into non-traditional work. Sometimes it's somebody they know, sometimes it's something that happens in schools."

Or maybe something that happens during a summer camp.

At the Tri-Valley Flying Field in Rosemount, the girls from the University of St. Thomas STEPS camp get to test out their inventions. Members of the Tri-Valley Flying Club donate their time to teach the girls how to use the controls. The volunteers - mainly retired men - make sure the planes get off the ground, then they let the girls take their turn flying the plane.

Volunteer Elroy Rechtzigel helps Danesha Swindall from Rochester fly her plane. The plane's course is a little unsteady, but it lands gently and safely. Danesha is pleased. "I was nervous a couple of times, but it went well. I didn't know how fast it would go, but we all worked together, and got it done," she says.

This is the second year the university has hosted the STEPS camp for girls, and no one is sure how many of these girls may be influenced to choose engineering or a related field. The director of the St. Thomas engineering program, Ron Bennett, says he's launching a 10-year study to follow graduates of the summer program to see what effect the program has had on their long-term choices.