The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded UCF a grant of more than $1.8 million through its Improving Undergraduate STEM Education program to support the success of Latino and other underrepresented students pursuing a major within STEM fields.

Last year, UCF was designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by the U.S. Department of Education. This designation is for higher education institutions that serve more than 25 percent Hispanic/Latino undergraduate students. As of Fall 2019, 28.3 percent (16,848) of UCF’s undergraduate student body identified as Hispanic/Latino.

This is the first HSI grant of its kind, which UCF has been awarded to improve student learning. The designation opens doors to more grants, specifically those which are intended to help underrepresented students.

This grant will aid in the development of a scalable educational ecosystem for building STEM capacity at HSIs, says Pegasus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineer Ronald DeMara, the principal investigator on the grant.

DeMara identifies the project’s four pillars of reach as follows:

•determining the effects of graduate and undergraduate faculty, teaching assistants, and peer mentors trained in culturally relevant teaching approaches on learning, engagement and degree attainment;

•evaluating and refining the deployment of an innovative assessment infrastructure to promote student learning, retention, advancement and graduation of students from HSIs;

•creating an automated micro-credentialing tool that would provide access to community internships while developing student self-efficacy; and

•developing culturally relevant curricular materials to train STEM faculty, graduate teaching assistants and peer tutors.

“The Latino population in Central Florida and at UCF will continue to grow, and there is a significant need for equitable representation of Latinx talent in STEM,” says Cyndia Muñiz, director of HSI culture and partnerships. “This requires intentional support systems and access to resources that promote professional development in these fields. This HSI grant is a significant contribution to those efforts.”

On a micro-level, this grant benefits those students who struggle to pursue to their professional aspirations. UCF is dedicated to providing intentional programs and experiences that  prepare students to thrive in- and outside of the classroom. This includes innovative pedagogy that resonates with Latinx and other underrepresented student populations.

“UCF has made it their mission to facilitate the lives of students like me,” says Ernest González, a civil engineering major and peer mentor. “It was educators and programs funded by initiatives like these that allowed me to get a civil engineering internship from my first semester of my sophomore year all the way to the second semester of my junior year.”

UCF is sixth in the nation for awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students and aspires to be a national HSI model. Through these new federal grant opportunities, UCF will continue to make strides in research, student support and the economic development of the Central Florida region, Muñiz says.

For co-investigator Florencio Hernández, the project is an opportunity to change lives.

“I believe that this grant will be a source of inspiration and encouragement for all underrepresented communities in the region to unite efforts and celebrate achievements as one family,” says Hernández.

Story by Simone Rousseau, UCF Office of Research