Mentoring Students, and Closing the STEM Gap, Without Leaving the Office 

 The business community can help close the STEM skills gap by tapping the special skills of existing employees. And technology can play a role.

Man working at a computer

More people could serve as mentors if they were allowed to do so online instead of in person.

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About one in five students does not graduate from high school with their class, according to data from the National Center for Education, and of those that do, many are not fully prepared to succeed in college and careers.
But mentoring by a caring adult can make a tremendous difference. At-risk young adults who have a mentor are more likely to go to college than those who don’t. Unfortunately, 16 million people will reach the age of 19 without ever having had a mentor, according to a new report by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
The need exists, and we as a country have the capability to address it. We face a shortage in workers trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that threatens our global competitiveness. Yet, U.S. businesses of all sizes are chock full of underutilized STEM talent – people who could be used to mentor others and encourage them to join STEM fields. The business community can help close the STEM skills gap by tapping the special skills of existing employees. And technology can play a role.
We Teach Science matches algebra-challenged students in the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose, Calif., with STEM professionals. The mentors meet eighth grade students for an hour per week through a web-based, interactive whiteboard in real-time during the school/work day. The mentors not only help fill in the gaps for the students, but build the students’ self-confidence.
David Norris, an AT&T IT project manager in San Ramon, Calif., watched his 13-year-old student’s confidence grow inside and outside the classroom. “If you can solve math problems, you can solve a lot of other problems in life,” he says.
Norris says he couldn’t have volunteered without an e-mentoring option. Travel times and traffic jams would have eaten up his available time.
Aragon Burlingham, CEO of We Teach Science, says successful completion of Algebra I by the end of ninth grade is one of the strongest indicators for completion of high school and admission to college. We Teach Science focuses on eighth graders to build a foundation for success and is now expanding the program to students in ninth and 10th grades. The results are impressive.
Students tracked over a two-year period after completing the program showed a 5.4 percent improvement in California Standardized Test math points after taking Algebra I in the ninth grade compared to peers who were not mentored. Science performance improved 5.9 percent although science was not part of the mentoring program.
E-mentoring is among many opportunities available to AT&T employees through AT&T Aspire Mentoring Academy, which pairs students at risk of dropping out of high school with employee volunteers. Most of the mentoring is done face-to-face, but e-mentoring allows employees to interact with students without leaving the office, which makes it possible for many more people to help others.
In just three weeks earlier this year, 120 far-flung AT&T employees from 27 states converged on San Diego’s Academy of Information Technology at Hoover High School to provide more than 300 hours of guidance counseling to 118 at-risk students. There were no plane tickets or traffic jams to contend with.
The connections were made through icouldbe, an online community of professional mentors. Mentors spend one hour a week counseling students through a secure portal during regular class time, focusing on academic success strategies, career exploration and college planning.
Educators and non-profits will lead the way in closing the STEM skills gap. But the business community can be the catalyst by tapping the unique skills and commitment of employees. It can take as little as an hour a week.
Together, we can reconnect youth to school and work, prepare the next generation for success and ensure our nation’s economic prospects are realized.
Charlene Lake is senior vice president public affairs and chief sustainability officer for AT&T.