Educate to Innovate: Awarding Excellence in Mentoring

[Ed. Note: Learn more about the Educate to Innovate campaign.]

Stacy Phelps

It has been a pleasure to work with so many students and their families over the past year as a mentor, helping them awaken to their natural but perhaps undernourished interest in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM). Witnessing students take positions of leadership as they apply their STEM knowledge and make significant differences in their local communities has been immensely rewarding for the students and for myself.

The simple definition of a mentor is a trusted or experienced advisor, and although it gets less attention than formal teaching in much of America today it is a familiar tradition among American Indians like me. Within our Tribal communities, our ceremonies, histories, languages, and everything else we place value on has long been passed orally through an intricate system of mentoring. In American Indian culture, no one is too young to serve as a mentor. Meaningful mentoring relationships can exist between junior high and high school students, amongst peers, between high school and college students, between college or graduate students and faculty, and at a professional level between colleagues.

In fact, mentoring is one of the most inexpensive and effective strategies for increasing the success of any and all students.  A good mentor can inspire students to find their own path, regardless of those students' circumstances, background, or level of academic preparation. We all know from experience that the significance of relevant knowledge and information is often missed if it is simply written and stored until a worthy individual stumbles upon it. A written or cataloged set of words simply cannot compete with the passion that mentors can bring to ignite and excite us about their work and what they know.

Many of the people who I have mentored either throughout high school or through college today serve their local American Indian Tribe in critical areas, such as natural resources management. For Tribes, of course, connections to the natural world and preserving these precious resources for future generations are long-term priorities. The students' academic and research experiences, their work ethic, and their dedication are helping local Tribes to use technology—in some cases along with traditional knowledge—to preserve and manage precious resources such as water, land, air, and timber.

For example, tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have helped the students I have worked with develop scientific models so future decisions relating to health of the local land, availability of water, access to electricity and communications grids, and use of emerging technologies from alternative energy, can improve the overall quality of life for all of the people in a community.

It seems like a very small thing, but to have students I have mentored be right in the middle of these decisions—becoming experts and leaders, providing inspiration and hope in communities that are very desolate, depressed, and despondent—is very gratifying. It means that each and every one of us can dramatically impact and improve the future of our local communities, our states, and our nation, by getting out of the silos of our offices and our labs and making the personal effort to mentor individuals.

Stacy Phelps is Chief Executive Officer of the American Indian Institute for Innovation and is being honored tomorrow with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring

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