The Crucial Role of Mentors in STEM

A panel at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference agreed that too many students in poor, rural or underserved communities need mentoring opportunities.

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Mentoring a young person in the STEM fields can start as early as in pre-school, the benefits can last a lifetime and mentorship is crucial to reversing the achievement gap between black and white students.

But a panel at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference on Wednesday also agreed that too many students in poor, rural or underserved communities don’t often get those opportunities, which can be as elaborate as after-school apprenticeship programs -- or simple as meeting a pilot in a grocery store.

“Leading by Example: The Crucial Role of Mentors” featured Capt. Barrington Irving, the president and founder of Experience Aviation, as well as Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, the CEO for YWCA USA, Eric Schwartz the co-founder and chief executive of Citizen Schools and the executive chairman of US2020, and a last-minute addition to the panel from the ACE Mentor Program. The panel was moderated by Darlene Cavalier, the founder of both Science Cheerleader -- an organization in which former pro sports cheerleaders mentor younger cheerleaders to study in STEM fields -- and of SciStarter, a web site designed to stimulate science learning.

Richardson-Huron says mentoring opens pathways to achievement for young people through encouragement, and studies show students who have mentors “thrive” in nearly all STEM settings. But “so many young people are not benefitting because they lack mentors,” she says, especially African American girls who want to study math or the sciences.

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“Unfortunately for us, many of the children we see don’t have parents who are role models,” she says, adding that without that encouragement interest in STEM fields drops off with age. “They don’t have people in the community who are role models. They want to do well, but they don’t have those people [in their lives] who say, ‘You can do it.’”

Irving -- the youngest person to fly solo around the world and the first African American to ever accomplish the feat -- said he thought football was his way out of his tough Miami neighborhood. When an airline pilot he’d met in a store one day asked him if he’d ever considered flight school, Irving demurred.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m smart enough to fly,’” Irving recalls. But the pilot persisted, invited the teenage football star to visit the cockpit of his plane, a Boeing 777, during a layover in Miami, and urged him to sit in the captain’s chair.

”He said, ‘Go ahead -- play with the buttons,’” Irving said. Months later, Irving turned down a football scholarship to the University of Florida and enrolled in a college aviation program, despite doubts from close friends and some family members.

“Everyone thought I was crazy. My coaches thought I had a psychological breakdown,” says Irving. “I share this story because when you pursue these types of fields where I come from, not everyone jumps up and down and says, ‘Go ahead - you can do it.’ ”

Other key takeaways from the session included:

  • Mentoring can help reverse the achievement gap between black and white students, especially kids in underserved or rural communities, says Schwartz. “It’s not that the schools in lower- and upper-income neighborhoods are unequal, it’s not because poor kids are learning less, but wealthy kids are learning much much more” because of “extra learning” outside of the classroom, he says.
  • African Americans -- and girls in particular -- are most in need of mentoring in STEM fields, says Richardson-Heron. In Montana and Mississippi, where high schoolers take an exam for advanced math and science classes, not a single black or Latino girl even registered for it
  • Even children as young as preschool age can benefit from mentoring by learning about different careers they can pursue in STEM beyond jobs that require a lab coat or a hard hat. A representative from the ACE Mentor Program said she mentors young girls who say they want to be fashion designers but change their minds when they realize they can be as creative if they’re an architect or graphic designer.
  • Mentors are crucial to the success of young people: many of them don’t know that they can achieve in STEM, or even that they have the aptitude for it, for various reasons including a lack of encouragement in the home. Irving says one student he mentored “couldn’t find 1/16 of an inch on a she’s on a full math scholarship at Duke University.”
  • Schools and educators can create effective mentoring opportunities for kids through partnerships with STEM corporations and businesses, many of whom want to help develop a home-grown talent pool for future employers.

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