STEPS camp introduces young girls to STEM-based programs

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Volunteers help repair and assemble plane parts next to the launch site. Students of STEPS (Science, Technology, and Engineering Day Camps) fly planes that they have built during camp at Warped Wings Fly Field in Allendale on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Volunteers help repair and assemble plane parts next to the launch site. Students of STEPS (Science, Technology, and Engineering Day Camps) fly planes that they have built during camp at Warped Wings Fly Field in Allendale on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

Emily Doran

This past month, 90 middle-school girls attended one of two Science Technology and Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) Day Camps at Grand Valley State University as part of a broad initiative to address the underrepresentation of women and minority females in engineering and other STEM-based careers.

The tuition-free camps, which were started at GVSU in 2000 and designed to expose girls to the vast field of engineering, consisted of four days of classes, field trips, workshops and recreational activities, as well as an overarching project of designing, building and ultimately flying remote-controlled airplanes.

“We try to give them little pieces of a lot of different things,” said Sara Maas, the director of the camps. The class material, for example, covered topics such as aerodynamics, coding, biomedical engineering and 3D printing. During the field trips, the campers explored life-sized airplanes and met engineers of various ages, backgrounds and experience.

According to Maas, the need for these all-girl engineering camps is pressing. In response to the statistic that only 14 percent of engineers are female, Maas affirmed “we should be at 50 percent” in order to represent the general population accurately.

Maas also addressed the issue of minority females in particular being underrepresented in the field of engineering. In order to confront this problem, she said, the GVSU STEPS program actively seeks to make minority females a significant part of the camps.

“We try to run the camp at around 35 percent minority students,” Maas said. Nevertheless, many of these students face barriers that could potentially hinder their attendance, such as issues with transportation or finances. In order to tackle these obstacles, GVSU provides free transportation and need-based scholarships.

“(As) engineers, we’re here to solve problems, we’re here to make life better, and we’re not making it better for white males—we’re making life better for everybody,” Maas said. “You have to be able to cater to the entire population, and without bringing up the women and bringing up the different backgrounds that people can give to engineering, then you’re really going to struggle.”

One particular goal of the camps is to tackle the issue of girls being discouraged from pursuing a career in engineering and consequently suffering a lack of confidence.

“They learn from a very young age that it’s a men’s world and that it’s a man’s job and that they might not be successful at something like that,” Maas said.

In fact, according to Maas, even girls who display a knack for math and science can experience outside pressure to conform to traditional gender norms: “In general, when girls get to be about this age and they show an interest in science or an interest in math or … the ability to be really good at those subjects, sometimes it’s looked upon as being geeky or dorky.” 

Sue West, an adjunct in GVSU’s chemistry department and a long-time instructor at the GVSU STEPS camps, agreed that this is a dangerous and pervasive issue. She believes many girls, due to various sources of outside pressure, think they have to hide their smarts and conform to traditional gender roles.

“That could be (the result of) a stereotype, it could be something that comes from family, it could be a peer pressure kind of thing, it’s hard to say; it’s probably a little bit of everything,” West said. “We want girls to learn early on that it’s okay to be smart, and it’s okay to be a girl.”

This concept is actively promoted in the camps. West emphasized curiosity, creativity and self-reliance are strongly encouraged among the girls in order to foster confidence and an interest in engineering.

“These kids are using power tools, they’re doing things they’ve never done before, they’re totally out of their element . . . and that’s what we want,” West said. “We want them to see that there’s a million things you can do.”

The parting message which the campers received at the conclusion of last month’s camps was a reaffirmation of the importance of education.

“We remind them that you need to stay in school, you need to study math and science and don’t be afraid of it, and you need to go to college,” West said.

For West, it’s encouraging to see girls from earlier camps, like Hannah Nyeboer, do just that. After participating as a camper in 2010, Nyeboer returned to the GVSU STEPS program this year as a student counselor. She is currently a sophomore studying engineering at GVSU.

Recalling her time as a camper, Nyeboer stressed that the presence of female role models had a positive impact on her and helped her realize that she could succeed in an otherwise male- dominated field like engineering.