The National Science Foundation is investing $1.8 million in a University of Central Florida researcher’s project to recruit students into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs by incorporating career planning as soon as they begin classes at the university.

The project is banking on the notion that there are many future scientists and engineers in UCF’s freshman class even if they don’t know it yet. The program aims to dramatically increase the numbers of STEM graduates by identifying first-year students, enrolling them into a special course designed to introduce them to STEM careers and following up with mentoring, tutoring, and job shadowing as well as the support of a community of like-minded students.

“We will recruit freshmen who are strong in mathematics and have an open mind in terms of career paths,” said Cynthia Young, a professor of mathematics, an associate dean in the College of Sciences and the lead researcher on the project called Convincing Outstanding Math-Potential Admits to Succeed in STEM – or COMPASS for short.

Young and her colleague, Michael Georgiopoulos, interim dean for the College of Engineering and Computer Science, have already shown that early academic intervention can greatly boost the numbers of science, math and engineering majors at the university. They have successfully run the EXCEL program, also funded by the NSF, since 2005.  EXCEL helps increase student success in the first two years of their college career in a STEM discipline. While EXCEL has increased the retention rate of students with those majors by 40 percent, the new strategy (COMPASS) focuses on engaging students who may not think science or engineering is for them.

Young is working with a team including Georgiopoulos, Andrew Daire, an associate professor and assistant dean in the College of Education, Chris Parkinson, an associate professor of biology, and Melissa Dagley, the executive director of iSTEM (initiatives in STEM) in the Colleges of Sciences and Engineering and Computer Science, to identify freshmen who have the propensity to do well in mathematics and invite them to enroll into an Explorations of STEM Careers course during their first year at UCF.

A pilot program is being run this semester before the full program begins in Summer 2013.

COMPASS uses SAT scores to identify freshmen who have the potential to do well in math and inundates them during their first semesters in college with opportunities to explore what a job in a STEM area might look like. As the researchers found in the EXCEL program, that population will include a disproportionate number of groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

“There is a whole pipeline we’re not tapping that we need to pay attention to,” Young said.

All freshmen who enter UCF for the first time will be encouraged to register for the career planning course designed by Daire, who specializes in counselor education, which focuses on the Explorations of STEM Careers .

Following the successful advising model used in the EXCEL program, students will be assigned a graduate teaching assistant to support and mentor them as they matriculate through mathematics classes.

Finding an additional pipeline of students is important to keep the U.S. competitive in the disciplines that fuel innovation. Speakers at the recent U.S. News STEM Summit 2012 focused on how the U.S. can improve upon a 50-year decline in U.S. STEM performance.

There are two ways to increase the number of STEM degrees awarded in the U.S.: either retain more STEM majors or recruit non-STEM majors into STEM. This UCF team has demonstrated a national flagship model for retention. The goal of COMPASS is to increase the numbers of non-STEM students who decide to pursue STEM degrees, Young said.