In a previous article, “The Benefits of Bringing Math Professionals Into the Classroom,” we discussed the importance of bringing STEM experts into the classroom and how new technology makes this connection easier than ever before. What about taking an extra step and giving students the chance to work directly in STEM fields alongside experts?
Mentorship programs give students the chance to gain experience in a field of their choice. These experiences are especially important for STEM-minded students who may be interested in a career, but not really know what that career involves. For example, a student may think artificial intelligence is cool (Do I Need to Know Coding to Have a Career in Artificial Intelligence?), but would benefit from spending time actually working in the field. These mentorship experiences benefit all students, especially those from underrepresented populations in STEM.
I am an example of how important these experiences are. During my senior year at Olentangy High School (@OlentangySD), I enrolled in my school’s mentorship program. I needed another course to graduate and wanted to try something different than the average class. Plus, I had heard great things about the program at my school. Little did I know the mentorship would become my favorite high school class and the most important in the evolution of my career path.
I loved my advanced placement biology class in high school. I loved solving problems and doing cool experiments. So when I started the mentorship program, I knew I wanted to try my hand at biology research. It was the only way to know if research was something I really wanted to do.
The mentorship program coordinator at my school, Linda Shank, connected me with a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Kevin Mason. His research focuses on a pesky bacteria called haemophilus influenzae that plays a role in ear infections in children.
I went into the experience knowing virtually nothing about how a science lab worked. I didn’t know any lab techniques, but I was given my own project to work on under the supervision of a graduate student. It was important to have the independence to discover science virtually on my own.
At first, the project felt way over my head. I wasn’t sure I could understand the complex information that goes into microbiology. Luckily, I had great mentors who believed I could complete the project. They took the time to explain the information over and over and connected it to what I was doing. I couldn’t get this experience from reading a textbook or doing cookbook science labs. By the end of the program, I was plating bacteria like a pro!
Here’s only a fraction of what I got out of my research experience during high school:
1. My first scientific paper!
The research I did as a high schooler wasn’t just busy work. It went into a real peer-reviewed scientific paper with my name attached to it. For scientists, publishing is extremely important and going into college, I was one step ahead of most of my peers.
2. The ups and downs of scientific research
It’s difficult to know what goes into research until you jump in. A big part of science is the setbacks. When experiments don’t work or don’t give answers. When a project goes much slower than expected.
The other side of this is the excitement when something does work! Participating in an actual research project with real-world implications exposed me to the nature of science early on.
3. I could do this!
Through the experience, I learned I could be a scientist. The more I worked in the lab, the more comfortable I felt. This gave me a sense of purpose going into college.
Designing a STEM Mentorship Program
How do schools design mentorship programs that give students the awesome STEM research experience I had?
Taking the time to develop a strong mentorship program will ensure students have a high-impact STEM experience. Here are some basic guidelines:
— Students should pick a subject they are enthusiastic about. This way they get the most out of their experience.
— Students should spend an extended amount of time at the mentorship site. During the mentorship program at Olentangy, students spend at least 50 hours working with their mentor. This ensures students can get a thorough look at the career they’re testing out.
— Students should work on real research projects and help answer real scientific questions, just like scientists do!
For tools to help design a mentorship program, check out Education Northwest’s resources! To learn more about how the mentorship program I was a part of works, I reached out to my former mentorship teacher, Linda Shank.
Interview with a STEM Mentor:
Rachel: How did the mentorship program start at Olentangy? When did it start?
Linda Shank: The program started at Olentangy High School in about 2000. The Family and Consumer Science Department saw the need to prepare students with transferable skills as part of the college and career preparation.
Rachel: Why are programs like this important, especially for students thinking about pursuing STEM careers?
Linda Shank: Whether it is STEM or any other field, it is important for students to get a real life view of careers they are considering. In so many fields such as medicine or engineering there are a plethora of careers and because technology is constantly evolving the number and face of those careers is also constantly changing so it is even more important. The 21st Century Skills shows that there are so many skills, such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, and innovation that are necessary for those entering the workforce. Mentoring programs provide the opportunity for the development of those skills.
These programs are great for almost any student. The students gain so much more than just getting a look at the career. They gain maturity and build interpersonal and self-management skills just to name a few. Even if they do not find the right career for themselves they can eliminate some. This saves time and college tuition in the long run!
Rachel: What advice do you have for teachers who want to start a mentorship program at their school?
Linda Shank: Do research by collaborating with other teachers. Visit their programs to find out what works and what doesn’t so you can avoid pit falls. Having a network is invaluable.
Kicking off 2016 with a STEM mentoring bang!
It’s important for school mentorship programs to develop relationships with STEM professionals in their communities. Network with organizations that can help recruit mentors. Connecting students to scientists can also mean students do some of the foot work, reaching out to scientists they would like to work with.
Another important part of developing a research mentorship program is talking to scientists about the benefits of working with a mentee. Volunteering with students increases community engagement and can make a huge difference on a student’s future. In addition, having extra help in the lab will benefit a scientist’s research!
Mentorship programs also help parents who need practical ways to engage their children in discussions about their futures and the possibilities available to them.
Gaining experience in a real STEM workplace, like a microbiology research lab, is one of the most important ways to engage students in possible STEM careers. My experience helped laid the foundation for a life-long love of science. It is my hope that more students have the opportunity to work with real STEM professionals and realize they too have the potential to pursue an innovative career!
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