Graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University in May and landing a position at Raytheon Intelligence and Space in Largo, Florida, Vanessa Francisco (’21, Bioengineering) attributes much of her success to early exposure to opportunities in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Francisco was a part of the inaugural cohort of students in the FGCU STEM Academy in 2014 and looks back at that experience as transformative.
“The FGCU STEM Academy really opened my eyes to the range of possibilities that engineering had,” Francisco says. “I didn’t know there were that many fields within engineering, but the activities at the camp gave us a little glimpse of what each field — civil, bio, environmental, software — entailed.” Francisco says. “I’m glad that I was exposed to the bioengineering program at FGCU.”
Francisco discovered the FGCU STEM Academy while attending Dunbar High School in Fort Myers. Since she would frequently stay after school to work on projects with the school’s Engineering Club and competed in various local and state competitions, it became clear to her teachers that the academy could be an opportunity to gain additional perspective. That is exactly what the program did, opening up extensive possibilities that offered encouragement and sparked curiosity.
“The environment at the camp allowed me to understand that the professors were friendly and looking out for our success,” Francisco says. “This played a factor in my decision to attend FGCU, which paid off when I walked into Dr. Villiers’ classroom for computer graphics. The last time I saw Dr. V was back in 2014 and when I walked into his class in 2017, he remembered me from the STEM camp. I was shocked that he remembered me since it was three years since I first met him.”
Dr. Claude Villiers is a professor in the Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering in the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering and brings a unique perspective to the FGCU STEM Academy as one of its original builders. “I know that I am always into outreach, but I would never envision being part of the founding group who created such a successful camp,” Villiers says. “In the last seven years, we have served nearly 300 students with 80% of them from underrepresented groups.”
Villiers is exceptionally proud to see graduates like Francisco engage with the camp in high school and decide to study engineering at FGCU because of that opportunity. “As one of the 38 students who participated in the first camp first in 2014, Vanessa is a prime example of the importance of the camp,” Villiers says. “She is bright, intelligent and mature. She was enrolled in my ‘Engineering Computer Graphics’ course. She is now an FGCU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and will begin her professional career with Raytheon Intelligence and Space as a hardware quality engineer. We could not ask for more from any participants of the camp.”
Understanding the dynamics of such an intense field, Francisco has been serious about pursuing her passions in an area that would provide extensive opportunities. “I chose engineering because it’s intense and challenging,” she says. “You have to understand the background in order to be able to apply it — you really can’t ‘wing it’ because everything builds up and comes together in the end.”
Francisco decided to focus on specific research areas in bioengineering. “I fell in love with how ever-changing it is — there is always something new to learn or discover. The opportunities are endless because you can apply it to a lot, such as prosthetics, hardware, product design of medical devices, and genetic engineering.”
Excelling in the lab and connecting in the community, Francisco earned Whitaker College’s 2021 Overall Student of the Year award. “As a first-generation student, there was a lot to learn along the way, such as the foundation of building study habits, learning how to manage time, how to relieve stress from classes, and figuring out how to juggle work, all while attending school full time.” She also earned the Ruth and Cleveland Campbell First Generation Scholarship to support pursuing her studies. “My involvement with engineering student organizations and the Student Support Services (SSS) TRIO Program were definitely key experiences at my time at FGCU.”
Francisco secured the full-time position with Raytheon prior to graduating in May. “Working at Raytheon has been very rewarding,” she says. “Every day is something new — a different challenge to be faced. It’s interesting to see all the concepts we learned in school be applied in daily life. I’d like to give a shout-out to Dr. (Derek) Lura, my bioengineering professor, for emphasizing the design process — it’s been very useful.”
Recognizing the immense benefits of attending FGCU’s annual summer camp, Francisco shares her passion for early STEM experiences and sees the academy’s potential impact of expanding interests and building awareness to help guide future career paths.
“You learn what piques your interest versus something that is no interest to you, which can help you save time and money and limits the risk of switching majors,” Francisco says. “As a high school student, it’s beneficial to be exposed to these opportunities so that you get a little taste of what to expect after high school — I can tell you right now it is not the same.”
The success of the FGCU STEM Academy is more evident than ever as the seventh annual camp exploring engineering gets underway June 21. Although this year’s experience will be adjusted in accordance with COVID 19-related rules, the curriculum and content will be just as robust. Additional communication curriculum and specialized workshops have been added to enhance science communication and presentation skills all with faculty in Whitaker College and the College of Arts & Sciences. Freshman, sophomore and junior high-school students — many who are from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds and aspire to be first-generation collegians — will get an immersed, accelerated look at what their future careers could be in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Students are drawn to the camp for different reasons, but often identified by teaching partners in STEM-related programs throughout Lee and Collier schools.
Since 2014 the academy — co-sponsored by Sigma Pi Phi Epsilon Nu Boule, the nation’s oldest African-American Greek-lettered organization — has helped almost 300 students greatly improve their math scores on the ACT, given them hands-on exposure to an array of STEM majors and potential career paths, and been integral in achieving admission and scholarships from institutions of higher education.
J. Webb Horton, assistant director of FGGU’s Office of Community Outreach, has led the academy since its inception and takes tremendous pride in seeing the curious students excel through the program. “Watching them grow through our academy is an amazing experience,” Horton says. “It has transformed the lives of many students in Southwest Florida.”