With arms spread wide like wings, wide-eyed girls from the Twin Cities leapt in and out of planes as they learned about careers in aviation Wednesday at the St. Paul Downtown Airport.

The girls were in the middle of a summer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) camp called Project Scientist, which aims to expose girls to careers that may otherwise seem out of reach. The young campers were surrounded by female engineers and members of the U.S. Army National Guard, who were there to answer questions and inspire those who will come after them.

For many campers, ages 4 to 12, it was hard to choose a favorite activity from the day. Ava Dawolo, 7, spent just a bit of time in the National Guard's Chinook and Blackhawk aircraft before excitedly coming up with more questions she wanted answered.

"Maybe a composer," Dawolo later said about her career aspirations. "Maybe a hospital helicopter flier. My mom is a nurse, but she doesn't fly a helicopter."

This early exposure is key for getting girls interested in science and keeping them in the field, said Project Scientist founder and CEO Sandy Marshall.

"We do hands-on science, which is really fun, and they're not getting enough of that in school," she said. Women make up more than half of today's workforce but hold less than a quarter of jobs in STEM, according to the organization.

The program, based in Laguna Beach, Calif., has been operating in California and North Carolina, and this is Project Scientist's first summer in Minnesota.

About 40 girls are participating in the St. Paul pilot program, with Project Scientist serving more than 2,000 girls nationally.

Marshall, born in Minnesota, said she was happy to have her own daughter participate in her home state.

Last week at the camp, girls dissected sheep brains and interacted with various women in STEM careers while out on field trips and at their home base at Macalester College in St. Paul.

"We're the only program where every week they're going on a bus and visiting a different company in their own backyard," Marshall said. "Before getting on that bus, the day before they're meeting the women that work at that company."

These professional women, dubbed "STEM Superstars," visit campers to talk about their careers and education. Then the girls have a familiar face to connect with when they visit the company, said Marshall.

"She's like a celebrity to them," Marshall said of the women who visit the campers. "We've heard that from parents, and they're so happy to have their girls think of professional women in STEM as celebrities."

Paula Canter, a mechanical engineer and manager from Collins Aerospace in Burnsville, was a celebrity this year. Outreach to underrepresented groups is part of the company mission, she said.

Ivy Spindler-Schwartz, 11, hopes to go into STEM when she gets older.

"I just really like computer science. So I really want to pursue that and I want to be an artist because I like having a way to express myself," Spindler-Schwartz said.

Cpl. Holly Poehls, who volunteered at the camp, grew up passionate about mechanics. She joined the Army National Guard and transitioned from working on cars to helicopters.

"A lot of people told me that because I was a woman that I'd have a hard time in aviation. But that's never really been the case," Poehls said. "That just made me want to do it even more."

There wasn't a program like this one when she was exploring her career options, she said, but she is hopeful for the children who are participating in the camp.

"We never had anything like this when I was kid, and I think if we had more stuff like this, that's how you get women to do a lot more in STEM programs," Poehls said.

More information about Project Scientist is available at projectscientist.org. Financial assistance applications are typically posted in January for the upcoming summer.