Many STEPS forward

By University Communications
August 8, 2014

Program inspired participant to learn about science, technology

Participants in the STEPS for Girls program at UW-Stout

Photo: Participants in the STEPS for Girls program at UW-Stout

Meghan Walters learned plenty from the STEPS for Girls program at University of Wisconsin-Stout, not the least of which is that the program is appropriately named.

Walters is a shining example of how STEPS, a summer experience for middle school girls, can be a stepping-stone to a career in fields that typically are male-dominated.

STEPS stands for Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer program.

A decade ago, Walters was a STEPS participant when she was about to enter seventh grade.

“It opened my eyes. I realized, ‘Oh, a girl can go into math, science and technology fields,’ ” she said.

She loved STEPS so much that she kept coming back — for an advanced camp, as a lab assistant and as a junior counselor, counselor and instructor.

During this summer’s 18th annual program, Walters was head counselor for the 160 girls who spent a week on campus in groups of 40. She now helps guide girls who, like her a decade ago, were a little nervous the day they arrived and a little unsure if science was for them.

“It’s a huge confidence-builder for everyone here,” Walters said. “By the end of the week they’re all very comfortable.”

Along with developing a love for science, STEPS helped Walters take another big step in her life. When she graduated from high school, she applied at only one college: UW-Stout, Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.

In 2013 she earned a technology education degree. She was the only female in her program’s graduating class that spring, she said.

Since then she has been substitute teaching tech ed in the Wausau school district, her hometown, and working on a master’s degree — along with working at STEPS.

“If you get to know me, I love talking about STEPS. I’m already planning for next year. How can I make this better?” she said.

The STEPS experience focuses on manufacturing engineering through the fabrication of a unique product, an obstacle-avoiding robot, the Bug Bot, in a realistic production setting. Girls have hands-on lab sessions for packaging, plastics, electronics, automation and foundry and produce essential components for the robot.

Physics, chemistry, biology and math activities provide background for the project. Communication skills are sharpened in cross-media graphics and multimedia design.

“We get as much hands-on as we can get. Their hands are always busy,” Walters said.

Girls see all aspects of a manufacturing process. They go to the foundry and help make aluminum robot parts, learn about plastic thermoforming and make the robot shell, build antennas in an automation class and, in a packaging class, make a case to carry their robot.

“Every class is a favorite for somebody. That’s always amazing to see,” Walters said.

On the final day of the week, girls run the completed robots through obstacle courses in a low-key competition to see whose perform the best.

Help from sponsors

Sponsors fund about 40 percent of the program, with tuition covering 40 percent and UW-Stout 20 percent. For a list of sponsors and to apply for the 2015 STEPS program go to www.uwstout.edu/steps.

About 2,800 girls have participated in STEPS since it began in 1997.

All activities are presented by university STEM College faculty or professionals in the field; most of those presenting are women. Many UW-Stout students and departments are involved.