Federally funded by the Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education, Project Enhance at The University of Texas-Pan American is on a mission to improve the quality of instruction for students with disabilities not only on the Edinburg campus, but also at higher education institutions across the country.
Project Enhance was created to assist minority institutions of higher education meet the need of serving students with disabilities by providing faculty, staff and administration with the skills and support necessary to meet the academic and programmatic needs of students with disabilities.
"The ultimate goal of Project Enhance is to close the gap of course completion rates between students with disabilities and students without disabilities. Basically, we are looking for eliminating the differences in the academic performance of these two groups," Glorimar Colón, Project Enhance director, said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11 percent of university undergraduates reported having a disability between 2003-2004.
"Project Enhance offers training and professional development activities to faculty, administrators and staff of institutions of higher education to provide them with the tools and skills necessary to teach and serve effectively students with disabilities. It is a national project that will be offering its services to 37 institutions of higher education across the country, including UTPA," Colón said.
Through Project Enhance, departments, offices, and universities can expect customized training, professional development activities, follow-up and individualized on-site technical assistance, and the establishment of an institutional needs assessment.
The trainings offered by Project Enhance are free of charge and based on the principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Universal Design for Student Services, and Universal Design for Administration Colón said.
UDL is defined as the framework for designing curricula that enables all individuals, regardless of their disability, to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. The UDL is proactive and anticipates the students' needs according to Colón.
"Applying the UDL in higher education can help increase retention rates and student satisfaction," Colón said.
During the month of September the Project Enhance team made up of Colón, Maria Solis-Morin, training coordinator, and Alisha Freeman, program specialist, will hold its first training to assist UTPA faculty, administrators and staff members incorporate elements of the Universal Design in their working area, courses, policies and procedures. This summer team members also traveled to Puerto Rico to work with several island universities to provide training and help build offices or programs for people with disabilities.
Morin said in the future, Project Enhance would like to work with more universities to help bring an understanding about students with disabilities as well as serve as an information source for the UTPA community and other higher education institutions.
"We want to bring awareness to student disabilities and bridge the gap to students with disabilities attending college," Morin said.
A host of universities interested in utilizing Project Enhance have already contacted the program Morin said. On Sept. 20-21, the program will host a conference on how to effectively teach and serve students with disabilities at Embassy Suites in McAllen for a select 20 universities.
In addition to the training sessions, Project Enhance also provides an Assistive Technology (AT) Lab, which recently had a $10,000 upgrade of cutting-edge equipment that was previously housed at the Department of Rehabilitation. Freeman, who oversees the lab, said the UTPA community is welcome to visit the lab and try out the latest technology, software, and devices for individuals with disabilities in the Rehab Annex, located on Schunior Road across the street from the Edinburg Baseball Stadium.
"If a student has a disability and wants to try out a new software and see if it works for them, then they should stop by the lab and test it out. Anybody can come and try out the equipment, including the faculty," Freeman said.
Project Enhance is planning to host an open house in August to showcase the Assistive Technology (AT) Lab, which includes six computers, a Braille printer, magnification and speech output devices, software for various disabilities, a Kindle reading device with a text to speech feature, and other gadgets.
"It is very important that individuals take advantage of the lab and Project Enhance because it would make life much easier for them," Freeman said.
The AT Lab is open from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. For those interested in learning how to use adaptive/assistive technology, an appointment should be made to receive individualized training and hands-on practice.
Project Enhance is a funded project under the "Special Demonstration Project Programs to Ensure that Students with Disabilities Receive a Quality Higher Education" of the U.S. Department of Education. It was funded in the amount of $1.1 million for a period of three years (October 2008 to September 2011).
"Being housed at UTPA, allows Project Enhance to provide more and better services to the faculty, administrators and staff members. Besides the scheduled activities we have on campus with identified participants of these three groups, Project Enhance is available for any other department or office that would like to be trained in aspects related to teaching and serving students with disabilities and the application of the Universal Design," Colón said.
To learn more about Project Enhance at UTPA and its services, call 956/380-8715 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.