I didn't always appreciate my dad when I was young. Thomas Gaddis was an Army veteran—a real disciplinarian—so he gave me a hard time if I didn't live up to my full potential. It wasn't until I got older that I understood how privileged I was to have a father who encouraged me to learn and be self-sufficient. Throughout my childhood, he drilled three principles into my head:
Education, education, education. When you learn, you gain something that no one can take away from you.
Always ask questions. There’s always someone in the room who has the same question but is afraid to ask.
Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do. If you believe it’s worth doing, set your mind to it and never quit.
As a high school math teacher, my dad walked his talk. He wanted his class to be fun and engaging, because he thought education was a joy in itself. He didn't like teaching students how to multiply polynomials the old-fashioned way; he made it about the Dallas Cowboys. He drew these big lines across the board between terms and exponents. Instead of saying “2x
2 is going to carry over to 3y…”, he'd say, “Roger Staubach is going to pass the ball to Drew Pearson…” and so on. He wove numbers and players’ names together until the Cowboys won the game and the problem was solved. To him, the best way to teach was with a story, and the best time to learn was always.
The Gaddis Girls' STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Camp was created to give middle school girls the opportunity to explore STEM fields.
On January 17, 2016, my dad lost his fight with cancer. He was 76. After the funeral, we started receiving letters—more than 350 of them. Students of his whom he hadn't seen in 30 years offered their own memories of Mr. Gaddis, the best math teacher they ever had. After reading them all, I was overwhelmed. I wanted to do something that would carry his work and legacy forward. That night, I sprung up in bed at 3 a.m., struck by an idea.
Now, my daddy didn't care if you were a girl or a boy; he just wanted you to be excited about math and science. He wanted every student to gain the tools to better themselves and be a well-rounded person, and he encouraged girls to pursue whatever career path they wanted in a time before that was the norm. That’s why I had the idea to start an all-girls STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp. He would’ve wanted to give girls their own opportunities to realize that they love learning.
My husband and I funded the Gaddis Girls’ STEM Camp in the College of Education and Human Development with help from Malcolm Stewart ’73 and High-Tech High Heels through the Texas A&M Foundation. It gives approximately 60 middle school girls a chance to explore STEM fields as they work together to complete hands-on projects on Texas A&M University’s campus. The camp finished its second year last summer, and the girls’ response to it has gone above and beyond what I hoped for.
This camp is about more than science projects. I want girls to focus on who they’ll be when the pressures of grade school are behind them. Before we started this camp, my niece went to a similar Aggie STEM camp that was co-ed. She arrived a little shy and skittish, which admittedly worried me. Halfway through the week, I talked to her counselors, and they told me she had made enough friends to fill up her own lunch table! All she needed was a space where she could really flourish and embrace learning, surrounded by others like her.
More girls can benefit from the same experience, and STEM industries can benefit from more qualified women entering the workforce. Unfortunately, while there are scholarships and other forms of support in place, the current cost of the camp’s enrollment can be a barrier for girls from middle and lower-income households. We need outside help to get the camp where it should be in size and accessibility.
Sometimes I’ll speak to the girls at the camp. I tell them about my daddy, the three principles he gave me and how happy he would be to see so many young women having fun learning math and science. Their curiosity and excitement would make him proud.
Honestly, I can’t take credit for what the camp has accomplished so far or what it will achieve in the future. The door was open, and I walked through it. It all came from my dad and the lessons he passed down to me. Evidently, there’s still so much left for him to teach.
The Gaddis Girls’ STEM Camp is one of several camps offered through Aggie STEM at Texas A&M that provide middle and high school students real-world experience in the principles of STEM. These programs are a collaboration between the College of Education and Human Development and the College of Engineering, and more recently, the College of Nursing and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. To support the Gaddis Girls’ STEM Camp Endowed Scholarship Fund or other Aggie STEM camp opportunities, contact Jody Ford ’99 at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 845-8655. Give online at give.am/GaddisSTEM.