Thanks to a new partnership, UCF and its two partner schools in the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Public Research Universities (the Consortium) ― Florida International University (FIU) and the University of South Florida (USF) ― will unleash the potential of Hispanic/Latina/o/x graduate students who seek to become leaders in the STEM workforce.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is providing $250,000 in philanthropic support for the Academic Consortium to Cultivate Engineering & Science Opportunities ― ACCESO a program that aims to increase the numbers and success rates of Latina/o/x graduate students in STEM majors.

Nationally, the number of Latina/o/x Ph.D. recipients in science and engineering (8.2% of total) has risen over the last decade ― up from 1,250 in 2010 to 2,000 in 2020 ― but it remains less than half of what it should be based on the U.S. population (18.9%), according to the National Science Board. The percentages for Hispanic Ph.D. recipients are even lower in non-social science STEM fields like life sciences, math, and computer science and engineering. These fields represent critical workforce needs and are the focus of the Sloan Foundation funding.

By sharing resources, developing academic and research relationships, and improving Latina/o/x student mentoring, ACCESO seeks to widen the pathways between regional non-doctoral, private institutions, known for student success in STEM majors, and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) like UCF and FIU, and emerging HSIs like USF. This collaboration will help transform STEM undergraduate and graduate education to grow the STEM workforce.

“Working intentionally with partners to increase the number of students in STEM graduate programs provides a meaningful avenue for meeting economic development needs across our region and state,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “We are excited about the prospect of strengthening our connections with our region’s higher education institutions as we work and learn together to increase enrollment and success in these critical disciplines.”

As the administrative lead of the Consortium, UCF will administer the Sloan Foundation grant and work with the partners to develop ACCESO programming through UCF’s Ginsburg Center for Inclusion and Community Engagement, and Office of Diversity Education and Training. With the goal to foster success in STEM graduate programs (master’s and doctoral degree programs) and prepare students for careers in STEM, UCF will develop workshops to equip the project team and associated mentors with evidence-based strategies to best teach, support and assess Latina/o/x student success and institutional change.

“We are extremely proud to support ACCESO in its mission to help Latina/o/x STEM scholars succeed in graduate study and beyond,” says Lorelle Espinosa, director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s higher education program. “We at Sloan truly believe, and have observed, that the best science happens when all voices, minds, and experiences are included in the discovery process.”

To recruit Latina/o/x students, partnering institutions will work collaboratively with the Ginsburg Center to develop a virtual STEM Education and Career Exploration Symposium. The symposium will provide prospective students an opportunity to learn about ACCESO, engage with Latina/o/x graduate students in STEM-related programs, and learn about career opportunities in STEM and earning potential.

“We want to leverage our resources and those of the Sloan Foundation, to develop a pathway so that these talented Hispanic students ― many from the liberal arts colleges ― can go into graduate STEM programs,” says John Weishampel, senior associate dean, UCF College of Graduate Studies and the project lead.

Mentoring and providing role models for STEM students is key.

“The role models are there — for example, UCF produces the most Hispanic aerospace engineers in the country — but we can always improve,” Weishampel says.

Making sure all levels of education reflect the demographics of the country is crucial.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of encouraging students who do well in STEM and helping them connect the dots,” Weishampel says. “Participating in a national conference or working in the field and seeing people with a similar background, these experiences can foster a sense of belonging that may guide students down a STEM path.”

Since 1993 UCF has offered a 10-week, six-credit summer mentoring program that pairs newly accepted research-focused graduate students with a faculty mentor to develop a strong foundation for graduate level work. Program participants have a 95% graduation rate.