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A University of Central Florida researcher has received NASA funding to create aerospace engineering opportunities for high schoolers from underserved and underrepresented communities to encourage them to think about space.

“Novel Experience Geared to NASA Engineering Design Challenges,” or NEXTGEN-EDC, seeks to ignite local high school students’ interest in STEM through engineering projects, professional development workshops and scholarships. UCF has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the U.S. Space Force (USSF), and the Florida Space Grant Consortium (FSGC) for the three-year project, which NASA recently awarded $480,000 to fund.

By providing opportunities to students where there might not otherwise have been, NEXTGEN will teach high school students the engineering skills and principles that are vitally important for establishing a diverse workforce in aerospace or other fields.

Subith Vasu, the lead researcher of the project and professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, says he is honored and excited to give back to the Central Florida community and to connect students to NASA and other experts in the commercial and defense sectors.

“This project has come at the right time when NASA is planning to send humans to the moon and beyond,” Vasu says.

Justin Urso, a postdoctoral researcher working on NEXTGEN with Vasu, says he hopes NEXTGEN helps cultivate a more diverse STEM field.

“Projects thrive when there are individuals of varying cultures, backgrounds, and experiences each providing their insight and expertise, and we are part of a coalition to increase the diversity in the STEM, and particularly aerospace, fields,” Urso says.

NEXTGEN will involve over 100 students and their families annually, with UCF facilitators and partners overseeing and guiding the students through STEM activities outside of scheduled classes. By bringing together numerous federal and state entities, the program will offer an unparalleled and NASA-relevant learning experience.

UCF facilitators, comprised of faculty and near-peer undergraduate research assistant mentors, will lead NEXTGEN meetings at a partnering high school, directing students and their families through simulated NASA-style mission EDCs.

USGS, USAF, USSF, and FSGC will provide instruction as well as scholarships and resources geared toward career advancement.

UCF alumnus and USGS staff scientist Travis Gabriel ’13 will host an annual kick-off event to share his experiences working on NASA Martian rover projects and teach lessons.

USAF, USSF, and FSGC will spur competition and incentivization through college scholarships and workshops for the students, and FSGC will also donate two Voexel 3D printers in the program’s first year.

Aside from attending meetings and workshops, students will participate in annual field trips to the Kennedy Space Center and in multiple professional presentations like in-school assemblies and end-of-year presentations at UCF.

Vasu says the project has just started with him and his team currently recruiting undergraduate researchers interested in being near-peer mentors and students for the first-year projects.

The project was one of eight proposals selected for NASA’s 2022 Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) program Aerospace Academy (MAA) award, which enables minority-serving nstitutions with the resources to inspire interest in STEM fields in local high schoolers.

Vasu received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and joined UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in 2012. He is a member of UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research and is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Vasu is a recipient of DARPA’s Director’s Fellowship, DARPA Young Faculty award, the Young Investigator grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, American Chemical Society’s Doctoral New Investigator, American Society of Mechanical Engineers Dilip Ballal Early Career award, and the Society of Automotive Engineers SAE Ralph R. Teetor Educational award. He has received many of the highest honors at UCF including the UCF Luminary and Reach for the Stars awards.