Hallie Stidham always liked math and science, and right before she started seventh grade, she realized she really wanted to become an engineer.
She found out at summer camp. That’s how it all started.
Her interest led her to High Point University from her home in Dennis, Massachusetts. Today, Stidham is a senior, and her success in both academics and leadership has earned her another distinction: Extraordinary Leader for the month of October.
She earned it because of her leadership in the Society of Physics Students and her volunteerism encouraging youngsters, particularly girls, to see the excitement of studying science.
She does love the definitive logic math and science provides, and she is the only woman among HPU’s 26 physics majors. But that’s not the only thing that sets her apart.
This year, she led a five-person team that designed a tool for astronauts that caught the attention of NASA.
How? HPU, Stidham says.
“I never would have guessed I’d be at this place in my life today,” she says. “All that hard work I put into school has paid off.”
Heading To Houston
It was a Wednesday in late February. Stidham was working on her homework in the unofficial clubhouse for HPU’s physics students – Room 129 in Congdon Hall – when her friend Matt Iczkowski burst in.
“We got it!” he blurted out.
Stidham knew exactly what he meant.
NASA had crowd-sourced nationwide for new ideas and challenged undergraduates from everywhere to design and build a device astronauts could possibly use in space.
Stidham, Iczkowski and three of their classmates – Jacob Brooks, Michael Cantor and Simeon Simeonides – jumped at the chance. They chose to design a device that chips off and collects samples from an asteroid.
They holed up in Room 129 and spent two solid weeks coming up with a design. Stidham felt like they lived there. They lost track of time, covered the room’s whiteboards with ideas, wrote an 18-page proposal and sent it to NASA.
Dr. Brad Barlow, one of their physics professors and a NASA consultant, applauded their work. But he told them not to get their hopes up because he knew how tough the competition could be.
But when Iczkowski burst in, Stidham felt a wave of emotion that boiled down to one word.
“We all thought, ‘Oh, we’re glad we did it, and if we don’t get it, it won’t be a big deal,’” she says. “But when we got it, it was exciting. We had done what we said we had set out to do.”
HPU joined 19 other undergrad teams from schools like Duke, Yale and Purdue. But with the green light from NASA, Stidham’s team faced yet another tough task: They had to build it.
But they had help. HPU’s Student Government Association gave them $8,000, and two HPU alums – Eric Scarlett and Jeremy Allen – helped Stidham’s team turn their whiteboard design into a hand-held reality.
They built a pneumatic-powered device, 18 inches long, a little bigger than a shoebox. It weighed no more than 15 pounds and looked like a space-age gun from a sci-fi movie. Stidham and her team called it the Chip ‘n Ship.
They took their device to Houston’s Johnson Space Center. NASA officials described the Chip ‘n Ship as “cleverly designed.” More importantly, it worked.
“We showed everyone that High Point can compete and build our own,” she says. “We did it, and we did it really well.”
Yes, they did.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Barlow says. “It speaks highly to the talent our students have and how they can hold their own. But more than anything, it shows their perseverance. They didn’t give up.”
Stidham’s Young-Girl Altruism
Stidham came to HPU as a Presidential Scholar in the school’s pre-engineering program. If she stayed in it, she would have to transfer either to Virginia Tech or Vanderbilt University to continue in engineering.
But she wanted to stay at High Point University. So, she did.
In May, Stidham will graduate with a double major in physics and mathematics with a minor in computer science. Afterward, she plans to go to graduate school and study either mechanical engineering or electrical engineering.
At HPU, she has been the president and vice president of the school’s Society of Physics Students. Last summer, she earned an internship with CERN, a research organization that operates the world’s largest particle physics lab in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Stidham has taken her interest in science on the road. She has encouraged students in California, North Carolina and Massachusetts to study science.
For Stidham, her presentations are part of a bigger plan.
“We need to get more girls in math and science,” she says. “It’s hard enough to get them interested because girls feel they can’t do it or they’re not smart enough. But every chance I get, I show them how much fun it is.
“I like being that spark, and I do it because who else is going to do it?”