Every student is different. Each comes into the classroom with different life experiences, learning abilities and personalities. In an evolving society where employers are rapidly demanding workers with STEM skills and schools are struggling to keep up, a tailored approach to STEM education – one that includes mentorship and accessibility – is required to ensure every student finds success.
Mentorship Makes a Positive Impact
For underserved, underrepresented, and vulnerable students, mentorship can make the difference in delivering positive STEM education outcomes. Many school-aged young adults face challenging circumstances, such as a lack of positive role models, insufficient access to education or other financial or societal barriers, but those who have a mentor are 55 percent more likely to be enrolled in college than those who do not, according to a study by Civic Enterprises. As more employers seek STEM-qualified workers, there are plenty of students who are poised to meet this need – with equitable support.
“Students who question if there’s a place for them in engineering or technology gain self-confidence working with team mentors – especially if they share similar interests or backgrounds,” said Don Bossi, president of FIRST®, a global nonprofit that fosters kids’ interest in STEM fields through robotics competitions. “Our organization relies heavily on professionals and educators who dedicate their time to mentorship, and students learn so much from them.”
Many students – especially young women and people of color – need encouragement and guidance to understand the opportunities that exist for them in STEM. Melissa Smith, a senior user experience researcher at Google and YouTube – and a FIRST alum – only joined her middle school robotics club because she mistook it for an aerobics club. However, Mr. Turner, her science teacher, encouraged her inquisitive nature, and Ms. Foy, her robotics coach, created a welcoming environment by taking the time to teach her how to use everything in the robotics lab, one-on-one. “I remember, very early on in robotics, I was this awkward kid,” said Smith. “Ms. Foy encouraged us to ask questions if we didn’t know something.” Smith says this judgement-free setting is extremely important for young students’ success, and she now calls joining the robotics club the luckiest mistake she’s ever made. Her interest in science blossomed from field trips to the Everglades and space camp, and Smith now works on human and computer interaction for one of the world’s biggest technology companies.
Connecting Disadvantaged Students with Mentors
Whether it’s family economic hardship, gender or racial barriers or a dearth of basic educational resources in communities, disadvantaged young people are systemically hampered by insufficient access to STEM education and relevant mentors. Organizations like FIRST provide students and classrooms with STEM resources, including grants and scholarships, and actively connect students with corporate partners to provide hands-on learning experiences and guidance from professionals. Data shows the approach works: Across all demographic groups (gender, race, economic status and geography), FIRST students show significant gains in STEM knowledge, STEM interest, STEM career interest, STEM identity and STEM activity compared to their peers who don’t participate.
“Companies, education systems and nonprofits must invest in their communities to deliver positive STEM education outcomes,” said Bossi. “There is tremendous untapped potential in underserved communities, and all stakeholders can play a role in connecting students with the resources they need to be successful. We have worked with corporate partners to provide resources and develop strategies that address inequalities in access to STEM education. We hope these resources enable more educators and community leaders to inspire students of all backgrounds to reach their full potential.” For example, FIRST and its equity, diversity and inclusion sponsors have awarded $1.2 million in grants to-date to more than 38 communities across the U.S. and Canada so they can develop strategies to bring STEM engagement opportunities to disadvantaged young people. FIRST also partnered with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) to develop free online training for mentors who commit to create diverse, inclusive and equitable teams.
Well into her professional career, Smith now pays it forward by mentoring and volunteering as much as she can, including attending information sessions where middle and high school students can interact with Google engineers, and volunteering as a head referee for FIRST competitions. She has seen firsthand how students gain confidence and come out of their shells when they get excited about learning, and how interacting with industry professionals gives students the opportunities to gain skills beyond robotics. Smith says the most rewarding part of mentorship comes when students learn to deal with adversity and learn from failure during the competition process. “The most exciting part for me is seeing how the kids learn to handle when something bad happens. The students are clearly upset, but they come up to you and thank you for helping them. It’s one of the mentoring moments I truly treasure in my current role, when the students are upset but remain able to have a mature conversation and understand that losing is sometimes part of the experience.”
Bossi echoes this sentiment and adds that mentorship doesn’t have to end when a student graduates. “Good mentorship doesn’t have an expiration date, and it’s gratifying to both the mentor and mentee to watch the latter grow and come into their own. Especially for disadvantaged populations, who may continue to face barriers as they advance in their careers, mentorship can create very valuable lifelong relationships.”
Meeting the Needs of All Students
Educators alone cannot be expected to meet the needs of a diverse student body: The responsibility must be put on all STEM community stakeholders, including the public and private sectors. According to Bossi, school administrators, parents, business leaders and nonprofits have a responsibility to ensure all students have equitable opportunities and pathways to STEM careers. “To truly meet the challenges of education today, we must ensure all students have role models who make them feel welcome, understand they have a voice and have the ability to get their fair shake at success.”