When Sandy Wilkinson’s father passed away, the letters started arriving—note after note from friends and former students of his expressing how much his math classes had meant to them. Realizing the impact her father had as a teacher, Sandy ’86 knew she needed to do something to continue his legacy. Thanks to gifts from her and her husband Michael ’86, Malcom Stewart ’73 and High-Tech High Heels through the Texas A&M Foundation, Wilkinson’s seed of an idea bloomed into the Thomas Gaddis Girls’ STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Camp.
“I started the Gaddis Girls’ camp for my daddy,” Wilkinson said. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, girls were excluded from STEM fields, but my dad didn’t care if you were a girl or a boy or even a monkey for that matter. He just wanted you to be excited about math and science.”
Named for Wilkinson’s father, the late Thomas Gaddis, the Gaddis Girls’ STEM Camp just completed its second annual session this summer. Housed in the College of Education and Human Development, the week-long camp offers hands-on STEM experiences for middle school and high school girls.
Wilkinson hopes this camp will pique girls’ interest in STEM and give them the chance to explore these fields without feeling intimidated by the presence of boys. “I want girls to find their voice at these camps,” she said, noting the shortage of women in the STEM workforce. “They need to know that they can be themselves and that people will listen to them because they are intelligent and can communicate well.”
Cleo Chiu, an incoming sophomore at Lamar High School in Arlington, Texas, who attended this year’s camp, hopes to use her talents in STEM to change the world. “I love technology because there are no limits to the things I can create,” she said. “I want to create an artificial intelligence mechanism that recognizes fruit and can help farmers harvest their crops, or maybe a robot that can identity debris in the ocean and help clean our seas.”
Through advanced labs and hands-on projects, the Gaddis Camp allows girls to discover their talents and learn how to utilize them in their future careers. “I loved collaborating with the other girls to build rockets,” said Tara Jackson, an incoming junior at George Ranch High School in Richmond, Texas. “Projects like this along with the labs we get to see help us understand how the world functions and how we can apply that knowledge to better society.”
To increase opportunities for girls to explore STEM and offer them state-of-the-art experiences, the camp needs more funding. “I hope to double or maybe even triple the size of the camp and reduce the financial barriers of attending,” Wilkinson said. “I would also love to offer students the chance to experience the amazing equipment we have here at Texas A&M, such as the nanotechnology lab and the wave lab, before they get into college. It just takes a lot more money than what we have right now.”
Recalling her niece’s experience with the Gaddis Girls’ camp, Wilkinson has watched girls blossom through this program. “I love seeing the excitement in the girls’ faces when they’re accomplishing something,” she said. “We’re encouraging the girls’ curiosity in this field while also helping them connect with each other. I’ve seen many girls like my niece who come in very shy at first, but by the end of the week, they’re asking questions and making lifelong friends.”
Through this camp, Wilkinson hopes to pass on three nuggets of wisdom that her father gave to her. “The first is education, education, education,” she said. “My dad always reminded us that no one can ever take that from you. The second is to always ask questions, and the third is to never quit. Just put your stubborn hat on and keep going, even if you fail the first few times.”
Budding Careers in STEM
The Gaddis Camp is one of several STEM camp opportunities offered at Texas A&M. Wilkinson serves as chairman of the Aggie STEM advisory board in addition to her work with Aggie STEM summer programs, which offers several introductory and advanced STEM camps for both male and female middle school and high school students. During these camps, students spend one or two weeks working collaboratively on research projects and explore things ranging from cryptography and coding to data analysis and mathematical topics.
As a business owner for 28 years and the chief financial officer for Paragon Animations, Wilkinson believes corporations should have an interest in supporting Aggie STEM camps. “Aggie STEM is leading the way for STEM camps because the instructors understand how to help young minds develop their intellectual potential while incorporating social aspects as well,” she said. “Our camps develop well-rounded students.”
By hosting STEM camps, Texas A&M helps students gain an interest in these fields at a young age. “Introducing students to fields in math, science, engineering and technology when they’re young gives back to society in the long run because the students are more prepared in their fields after graduation,” Wilkinson said. “Texas A&M is very good at listening to corporations and equipping graduates with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce right after college.”
Planting the seeds for STEM careers in young minds, especially those of young girls, prepares them to pursue their passions and use their talents to better society. “The next great invention, cure or discovery can come from anyone,” Wilkinson said. “We need to be sure that everyone with potential gets the opportunity to change the world. If you give them the educational tools and the intellectual tools, they can do great things.”
You can support the Gaddis Girls' STEM Camp with gifts of $25 or more online at give.am/GaddisGirls.