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$1M gift funds STEM summer camp for gifted youth

  • Hands-on learning:
    Hands-on learning:  Camp Launch provides kids with instruction in STEM-focused classes such as Lego Robotics, where kids learn how to assemble their own robots and then program them to complete various tasks.  Photo by Marisa Spyker
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A William & Mary summer camp for gifted middle school students is in its fifth year, thanks to a $1 million gift from Nancy Briggs Petters ’81 and Mike Petters M.B.A. ’93. 

The Petters’ gift will support Camp Launch, a two-week residential summer program, operated by the Center for Gifted Education at William & Mary’s School of Education. The gift was given through the Petters Family Foundation. 

The camp immerses high ability seventh- and eighth-graders from low-income backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, writing and personal development coursework. Sixty-five young students get to experience what it is like to live as college students, staying in dorms, taking classes in various buildings on campus and eating in the dining halls.

The camp is staffed by the Center’s graduate students, teachers from the area and other professional employees at the School of Education. The program is run by Mihyeon Kim, director of precollegiate programs at the Center for Gifted Education. 

“One of things that has made this country what it is, is that we believe generally no matter what circumstance you are born into you have the opportunity to change that,” Mike Petters said. “I think our concern today is that there is starting to be less and less people who believe that. Both Nancy and I have had an opportunity to be successful and a lot of our success can be attributed to the fact that we had access to high-quality education. I frankly believe if you’ve been successful, it’s your responsibility to help other people be successful.”

Mike Petters is president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Virginia — the largest industrial employer in Virginia and Mississippi and the largest military shipbuilding company in the United States.

 “If we can help someone experience a program they otherwise wouldn’t experience, they might be able to make some changes and some decisions that could impact their own future and that of their family,” said Nancy Petters, a pre-school teacher. 

The Petters’ gift comes at a critical time for the camp, which received startup funding and three additional years of support from a private foundation, but its future was uncertain.

“Their financial support has been essential to keep the camp alive,” said Tracy L. Cross, executive director of the Center for Gifted Education. “If they hadn’t given a gift, there would have been a lag in the program.”

Cross said the camp is designed to provide an opportunity for gifted students to take a step out of their everyday environments to experience learning in a college setting with other gifted scholars. 

“The generosity of the Petters’ family is transformative for middle school students who benefit tremendously from the opportunity to participate in an initiative that has proven to make a positive difference in their lives,” said School of Education Dean Spencer G. Niles. “The School of Education at William & Mary is deeply grateful for the Petters’ support of these efforts.”

Camp Launch started in July 2012 and is free to all campers. The students, who reside in a 75-mile radius of Williamsburg, are selected to attend through their school district.

“The learning and working techniques the teachers taught me at Camp Launch have helped me understand my classes at school, which has led me to earn better grades,” said a former Camp Launch student. “I can strongly say Camp Launch has affected me by showing me the importance of education.” 

One of the most popular courses, LEGO robotics, combines science, math and technology to facilitate hands-on problem-solving skills and creative thinking. During the class, students program LEGO robots, and use tilt and motion sensors, to move in various scenarios.

“Students and faculty at William & Mary are passionate about forging change that makes a difference in the lives of others and this is a major focus in our For the Bold campaign,” says Sue Hanna Gerdelman ’76, campaign chair. “Sharing our expertise with these brilliant students from our community is a wonderful way for the university to further engage with the world."

The $1 million gift is an extension of the Petters support of education in other significant ways. Earlier this year, Mike Petters donated his annual salary to launch an educational assistance fund for shipyard workers’ children. The fund supports early childhood education and college tuition. For several years, the company has covered college tuition for its employees.