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STEM Mentoring: Helping Youth Build STEM Literacy through Supportive Relationships

OCTOBER 7, 2016

Sea Research Foundation, Inc. (SRF) is a recognized leader in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); positive youth development; and mentoring. For more than a decade, SRF has brought its unique blend of group mentoring and engaging STEM content to thousands of youth in Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and other afterschool organizations across the United States. SRF’s current STEM Mentoring program — funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention — reaches nearly 3,000 youth at more than 100 sites in 35 states and Puerto Rico. SRF believes in the power of STEM mentoring programs to transform the lives of youth by connecting them with supportive mentors and enhancing their social and academic skills.

The purpose of this blog post is to provide general background information about STEM mentoring, share best practices gleaned from SRF’s STEM Mentoring program, and suggest helpful resources for those interested in starting their own STEM mentoring program.

What is STEM mentoring?

At a basic level, any mentoring relationship that incorporates STEM activities can be considered STEM mentoring. All it takes are youth and caring mentors sharing STEM experiences with one another: a small group of second-graders and their mentor meeting weekly to learn about endangered species; a middle school student interacting with an online mentor to explore STEM careers; a cohort of high school students working with engineering graduate students on joint research projects; or a “Little” and a “Big” planning to visit all the science and technology museums in their city.

Why combine STEM and mentoring?

Combining STEM and mentoring makes sense in part because youth can benefit from both. With the increasing importance of STEM in our society and the continued growth of STEM-related occupations, it is critical that youth from all backgrounds have opportunities to build STEM literacy. And anyone involved in the mentoring field knows that effective mentoring relationships can reduce risk factors and provide protective factors for youth, which is especially important for those who are most vulnerable. As it turns out, STEM and mentoring are highly compatible, so putting them together is a natural fit. For instance, STEM activities often involve problem-solving challenges that allow for team building and discussion opportunities among mentees and mentors. Finding solutions and learning new things together can help mentee-mentor matches build common ground — and a trusting relationship — in a natural way. As one STEM Mentoring mentor stated, “My favorite part of the mentoring program was the interactions that happened because of what we were learning. Teaching and learning led to [my mentees] opening up to me about other things in their lives.”

What are some best practices for STEM mentoring programs?

If you are interested in STEM mentoring and want to start your own program, it can be overwhelming to think about where to begin. You will definitely want to tailor your program to meet the needs of youth in your community. SRF has also assembled the following list of best practices based on observations and lessons learned from the mentees, mentors, and staff involved in its STEM Mentoring program:

  • Emphasize both the STEM and mentoring aspects of the program from the start. Mentees and mentors should understand that they are building a relationship with one another while also participating in STEM activities. Explain this in your mentor trainings and in any orientations you have for mentees and their families.
  • Know that your mentors do not necessarily need to have a STEM background. The activities in SRF’s STEM Mentoring program are designed so that any teen or adult can lead them. If your program will be more technical or career-focused, however, you might want to seek help from local colleges, universities, or STEM-related businesses to recruit mentors with a particular content background.
  • Make sure that mentors and mentees understand how they will be matched and how long the matches are expected to last. STEM mentoring programs can be successful in one-to-one and group mentoring models. Ideally, matches will meet regularly for one year or longer. In a site-based setting, there should be a set time and place for matches to meet; this helps prevent a STEM mentoring program from becoming a drop-in STEM activities program. (Drop-in STEM activities programs can be great for building STEM literacy in youth, but to be a STEM mentoring program, there must be a commitment on behalf of mentors and mentees to meet together on a regular basis.)
  • Engage community partners as sources for mentor recruitment, funds to run the program, and/or STEM enrichment activities. STEM enrichment activities can be field trips to STEM centers such as museums, zoos, or aquariums; visits with STEM professionals who are willing to share information about their careers; family STEM nights, during which mentees share what they are learning with their families; etc.
  • Secure an appropriate place to run the program, especially if it will be site-based. Consider whether matches might need access to tables and chairs, water, tools, an open space, the outdoors, and/or a computer lab for each session.
  • Incorporate ways to help mentees and mentors build meaningful relationships to ensure that your program is not just youth and adults meeting together to do STEM activities. For example, consider including a warm-up or icebreaker activity as part of each session, especially in the beginning of the program; these activities can help mentees and mentors form a sense of belonging and group/team identity. And always allow mentees and mentors time for informal discussion before, during, and after any STEM activities.
  • If possible, involve matches in shared STEM experiences outside the normal program structure. For example, if you have a site-based program, try to include one or more field trips. If you have a community-based program, try gathering matches together every so often for a group activity.

What resources are available for STEM mentoring programs?

If you want to start any kind of mentoring program from scratch, check out MENTOR’s Start a Program webpage for a multitude of resources on how to establish a quality mentoring program. Keep in mind that you can request no-cost technical assistance from the National Mentoring Resource Center if you need any help along the way.

If you already have a mentoring program and are looking to incorporate some STEM activities, there are many resources available to help you. Keep in mind that you do not need a lab space or expensive equipment to engage youth and their mentors in STEM. For example, the National Afterschool Association publishes short, discovery-based experiences called STEM Gems that require few if any materials to implement and are designed for youth of all ages. A great place to visit for a wider range of resources is the Afterschool Alliance’s STEM Resources webpage. This page includes curricula, professional development resources, funding ideas, and evaluation tools specifically developed for engaging youth in STEM in afterschool settings. For videos, FAQs, and more information on how to advocate for afterschool STEM programming, visit the Afterschool STEM Hub. Another good resource is The Connectory, an online tool that allows you to promote your own STEM-based program, connect to other program providers, and recruit volunteers.

For more information on the intersection of STEM and mentoring, check out the archived Collaborative Mentoring Webinar Series: Building Future Leaders Through STEM Mentoring webinar and the Corporation for National & Community Service’s Becoming a STEM Mentor toolkit. And if you are on Twitter, follow SRF’s STEM Mentoring program at @STEM_Mentoring for news and resources about a wide variety of topics related to STEM and mentoring.

About Sea Research Foundation’s STEM Mentoring Program

STEM Mentoring is Sea Research Foundation’s group mentoring program for youth ages 6 to 9. The program brings together small groups of youth with a teen or adult mentor to have fun and build meaningful relationships while participating in hands-on STEM activities. Activities cover a variety of STEM topics, with a particular focus on conservation. Groups of four mentees and one mentor commit to meeting once a week for an hour each week over the course of a year. The program is run at sites that have between 3 and 12 groups meeting at a time, with a Program Coordinator at each site overseeing the groups. The goal of the program is to positively impact the social development and academic achievement of participating youth.

In a typical STEM Mentoring session, members of each group of four mentees and one mentor begin by taking turns sharing successes and challenges from the previous week. Then mentors lead mentees in a warm-up activity to help build teamwork and introduce the STEM topic for the session. After the warm-up, mentees and mentors take turns reading aloud a short selection about the topic from their STEM Mentoring Manuals. The site’s Program Coordinator might then show an engaging video clip from the STEM Mentoring website to bring the content to life.

The bulk of the session is taken up by a hands-on activity about the focus STEM topic. Mentees and mentors work together to complete the activity, which might be to build a motorized car out of LEGO® elements, explore patterns in baseball, or play a game to learn how overfishing affects the endangered African penguin. After the activity is over, mentors prompt mentees to share how what they did relates to their lives and what they are learning in school. The Program Coordinator encourages mentees to visit the STEM Mentoring website with their families to view video clips and play interactive games related to the session’s topic. After the session ends, mentors touch base with the Program Coordinator and discuss any needs for their mentees and/or the upcoming sessions.

To learn more about the STEM Mentoring program, visit the STEM Mentoring website.

Sea Research Foundation, Inc. (SRF) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to conservation, education, research, positive youth development, and mentoring. SRF operates Mystic Aquarium — one of America’s premier nonprofit marine science research and education institutions, and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. 

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