Mentoring Tomorrow’s STEM Innovators

Barbara Deschamp considers herself one of the lucky ones. When asked what advice she would pass on to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students looking for a mentor, she said: “I’m actually lucky because my mentor found me!” Barbara was mentored by one of a select cohort of past winners of a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM)—bestowed by the President upon extraordinary Americans who are guiding and shaping the next generation of STEM innovators through mentorship.

Last week, marking the close of National Mentoring Month in January, the National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a Google+ Hangout that convened past PAESMEM winners to share ideas and best practices for engaging students from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

In addition to Barbara, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and her mentor, Charles Thompson, the Hangout invited NSF and OSTP officials and other past PAESMEM winners to tell their own mentorship stories, including Frank Bayliss of San Francisco State University’s Department of Biology; Sheryl Burgstahler of the University of Washington’s College of Education; and Lesia Crumpton-Young from the University of Central Florida’s Department of Engineering.

These all-star STEM mentors discussed the experiences that shaped their careers, and how they are paying it forward by providing mentorship to their own students.

Frank Bayliss, for example, was the first in his family to attend college, let alone pursue a PhD. He likened his experience to “going into a jungle without a machete, without a compass, no water filter, no idea what I was doing and getting lost.” He then explained, “mentoring is kind of like being a guide,” and along with the other participants emphasized the necessity of mentorship in helping students, especially those from underrepresented communities, navigate the many steps and phases of pursuing a career in STEM fields.  As NSF Assistant Director Joan Ferrini-Mundy—who leads the agency’s Education and Human Resources Directorate—pointed out, research in this area has provided evidence that mentoring is, in fact, a key part of keeping diverse students engaged.

The panelists also provided practical advice for future mentors, noting that the most effective mentors are more than just advisors –but also show personal interest in their students, guiding them through expected and unexpected challenges and helping them navigate toward degrees and careers that are the right fit.  Good mentors provide guidance on a range of issues, from identifying a research topic, to developing a study plan, to finding internship opportunities. This kind of support can be invaluable to students who are the first in their families to attend college, students with disabilities, and students who may feel discouraged from pursuing STEM studies.

These mentors—who are at once teachers, guides, tutors, sounding boards, counselors, and role models—are critical to ensuring that the Nation’s students have the support they need to become tomorrow’s STEM innovators. That’s why President Obama has called on the U.S. Government’s 200,000 Federal scientists and engineers to volunteer as mentors and why he has encouraged new partnerships such as the US2020 initiative—which encourages tech companies and education nonprofits to mobilize 20 percent of their STEM employees to complete 20 hours of STEM mentoring per year, by the year 2020.

We applaud STEM mentors across the country who continue to answer the President’s call every day, by serving as role models for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Watch the full Hangout with these remarkable mentors here, and visit www.serve.gov/mentoring to learn about mentoring opportunities in your area.

Fae Jencks is a Confidential Assistant at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy

Maria Zacharias is a Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the National Science Foundation

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