Then she heard about the STEPS for Girls program at University of Wisconsin-Stout, a summer experience designed to show girls in middle school that science, engineering and technology can be a career path for them too.
STEPS stands for Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer program.
That was six years ago. Curtis is about to start her freshman year at UW-Stout and plans to major in a highly technical field that she learned about at STEPS — packaging. "I fell in love with packaging," she said.
STEPS has made a difference in Curtis' life, and she hopes it will in the lives of girls who attended this summer's 17th annual program. Forty girls a week, 160 total, mostly from Wisconsin and Minnesota participated in the four weeklong sessions starting in early July.
Curtis loves STEPS so much that she has remained involved year after year. After her first STEPS camp, she went to an Advanced STEPS program, then became a junior counselor, lab assistant and, this year, a counselor overseeing a group of 10 girls each week.
"I really think girls walk away with a new understanding of what engineering, technology and science is all about," said Curtis, from Maple Plain, Minn., who graduated last spring from Orono High School in Orono, Minn.
"I also hope they're walking away with the confidence to be a woman in a STEM field because I walked away with that confidence when I was a camper."
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
One of the program's professional volunteers, Brianne Maier, attended the first STEPS camp in 1997. Like Curtis, Maier became interested in packaging and graduated from UW-Stout with a packaging degree. She worked at General Mills in the Twin Cities before taking a job recently as a packaging engineer with 3M in St. Paul.
"I credit the camp for a lot that's happened in my life," said Maier, who comes back every summer to help. "The camp strives to get girls interested in fields that are male-dominated. There are starting to be quite a few success stories."
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 in the program experience 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.
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.
By the third day of their week, girls assemble their saucer-size robots. By the fifth day, they run them through obstacle courses in a low-key competition to see whose perform the best.
One program participant, Maiya Fuller of Danbury, enjoyed the plastics lab and using the mold for the robot shell, as well as learning how to solder parts together."We used solder to do the wiring. It's easier than it looks actually," said Fuller, who will be a seventh-grader this fall at Webster (Wis.) Middle School. "STEPS camp is awesome."
Grant and sponsors
This year's STEPS for Girls Program was supported with a $32,500 grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, in St. Paul. The money was used: to provide tuition for the campers who attended without charge because they qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch in school; to provide materials and instruction related to the robots; and to evaluate program graduates through the campus Applied Research Center.
"Without the generous grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation and support from other sponsors, STEPS for Girls would not be possible," said Glendali Rodriguez, an associate professor in the construction program and STEPS director.
Sponsors fund about 40 percent of program costs, with tuition covering 40 percent and UW-Stout 20 percent. For a full list of sponsors and to apply for the 2014 STEPS program go to the website.
More than 2,600 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.