When Kirsten Dreggors ’97 ’05MA crossed the stage for her first UCF degree, she was one of two women in her aerospace engineering graduating class. Today she is vice president of engineering for Northrop Grumman in Melbourne, Florida, which is partnering with her alma mater to increase the representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
UCF’s Center for Initiatives in STEM (iSTEM) recently received a significant gift from Northrop Grumman to help increase recruitment, retention and graduation of women. Over the next three years, the grant will expand initiatives within iSTEM that promote increased faculty collaboration, foster undergraduate student success and provide scholarships. Funds will also support local K-12 student outreach to attract young women to STEM majors — including a student ambassador program and a weeklong summer camp for middle-schoolers.
STEM careers are among the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs in the world, but women account for less than a quarter of STEM workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. The retention rate for first-year UCF students who participate in iSTEM and continue studies in these areas is 86%, compared to just over 50% nationally, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.
“The national conversation around the role of women in STEM has consistently shown that interventions — peer and professional mentoring, tutoring, outreach and networking — can have a positive impact on young women’s futures in STEM,” says Melissa Dagley ’09EdD, executive director of iSTEM.
UCF has long been a top supplier of talent to the aerospace and defense industries. Since 1981, Northrop Grumman has provided philanthropic support to UCF for numerous research projects and academic programs totaling over $25 million. Currently, the company employs more than 750 UCF alumni.
“We are creating powerful networks of faculty, students, alumni and employers in support of women in STEM,” Dagley says.
Dreggors credits part of her success to the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) mentoring cohort. WISE and GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science) are hallmark programs of iSTEM and have served over 1,500 women since 2011 with mentoring, job-shadowing opportunities, tutoring and research experiences.
“Northrop Grumman’s partnership with the UCF WISE cohort brought women together and allowed us the ability to gain crucial skills for our engineering careers,” she says. “The real power of the cohort [is] the network we developed. Whenever I need an advocate or sounding board, the women from my cohort are always there, and those kinds of connections are invaluable.”
Over the years, UCF’s iSTEM has increased its K-12 offerings, doubling the number and size of its summer camps and inspiring thousands of K-12 students across Central Florida through STEM competitions and a biannual STEM day.
Before joining UCF, computer science student Natalie Longtin participated in three iSTEM summer camp experiences, which proved to be influential for the Timber Creek High School graduate. Longtin’s high school computer science teacher, UCF alumnus Kyle Dencker ’08 ’16MA, connected her with the UCF Programming Team, which she practiced with on weekends and led her to UCF iSTEM’s summer institutes in computer science and competitive programming.
“The camps were my first time away from home and one of the most challenging things I’d ever done,” she says. “It was only two weeks, but we covered a lot of material — fast. The experience was a big part of why I chose UCF.”
Now a junior, Longtin has already created apps and software during internships with Lockheed Martin, Facebook and Microsoft. This summer she has an internship lined up with Google.
“Our country is facing a critical shortage of students, and specifically women, interested in STEM careers,” Dreggors says. “Diversity and inclusion will be a critical component of strengthening our STEM workforce and will ultimately lead to more innovative engineering teams.”