In order to continue growing at its current pace, the collective US STEM sector will need to hire over 9 million individuals by 2022. Jobs falling within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have been surging for over a decade. STEM careers have increased by 16 percent between 2005 and 2012, even as growth stagnated in other sectors. Yet today’s colleges confer just 18 percent of their bachelor’s degrees in core STEM subjects such as physical science and information technology.
These statistics clearly illustrate a significant gap in the STEM pipeline. If the United States is to maintain a thriving economy, remain competitive on the global stage, and provide promising opportunities for its citizens, this gap must be addressed. Ensuring that all students have the resources, opportunities, and personal support to develop and pursue an interest in STEM topics is crucial. This will not only have a positive impact on the nation’s economic progress, but to the personal and professional fulfillment of the next generation of citizens.
Mentorship is one of the best ways to support students in exploring and pursuing STEM careers. Organizations such as Phillips Charitable Organization are performing the valuable task of providing financial support for students to pursue STEM degrees. Additionally, similarly-driven organizations are working to offer these students motivation to follow their dreams in the form of personal teachers and supporters.
Several initiatives have been launched with the specific goal of expanding mentorship opportunities in the STEM fields. These groups include US2020, which has begun partnering with youth-focused nonprofits to match students with 1 million STEM mentors by 2020.
Developed in response to President Barack Obama’s call for the business and nonprofit sectors to explore innovative solutions to the STEM skills gap, US2020 has further emphasized the importance of STEM mentorship through the creation of the STEM Mentoring Awards. It has also partnered with such leading firms as Cisco to create mentorship programs for underserved students.
Efforts such as US2020 are working to encourage STEM mentorship with the knowledge that it is a proven way to strengthen the STEM pipeline. The following are some of the many benefits of from STEM mentorship:
Exposing Students to STEM Topics
A student’s interest in STEM has a stronger bearing on his or her decision to pursue a STEM degree than does GPA. However, many students who might otherwise be interested in STEM encounter obstacles to developing this interest. A lack of awareness is one of the biggest challenges standing in the way of a student’s willingness to explore fields such as science and engineering. In a recent survey conducted by Lemelson-MIT, a majority of students revealed that a lack of understanding of certain STEM careers, as well as a lack of visible role models who work in these roles, was a major factor discouraging them from pursuing STEM careers.
Physicist and astronaut Sally Ride once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This succinct statement clearly encompasses the challenges facing many students without access to STEM role models. Many students, particularly those from underserved communities, have never met anyone employed in fields such as engineering or lab science. Statistics indicate that these students are less likely to pursue these fields themselves.
For students unacquainted with the world of STEM, it is difficult to imagine what a STEM job might entail or, moreover, how they might fare in this type of professional environment. Without the opportunity to realistically imagine a diverse array of career paths for themselves, students struggle to develop the interest and confidence to pursue them.
Providing a Platform to Develop Interest
Mentorship often gives students the opportunity to engage in the types of hands-on activities that are proven to encourage a lasting interest in STEM. Even something as simple as touring a working laboratory can provide an engaging introduction to the real-world applications of STEM topics.
The presence of a mentor often encourages students to continue pursuing their interest in STEM beyond high school. Academic research has found that mentors frequently factor into students’ decisions to attend grad school, as well as to select and persist in particular doctoral programs. Mentors are particularly effective at encouraging female students to continue their studies in the life sciences.
Fostering Personal Growth
In addition to sharing knowledge and stoking students’ interest in STEM, mentors also inspire their mentees to have confidence in their own potential. Many students from underserved communities with a lack of visible STEM role models may not receive active encouragement to pursue their interest in STEM fields. A mentor’s assurance that his or her goals are within reach can be one of the greatest resources a student has when choosing to pursue STEM degree.
There is a significant shortage of women and individuals from minority backgrounds in STEM fields. However, this gap is not the result of a lack of interest. A recent study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that while most girls express an interest in STEM topics, negative stereotypes related to female STEM professionals often dissuade them from pursuing this interest. Mentors can give students from diverse backgrounds the resolve and understanding to envision a place for themselves in the vast STEM pipeline.
STEM mentors play a significant role in closing the diversity gap in STEM. For members of groups who are underrepresented in the STEM community, concern over stereotypes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anxiety regarding the repercussions of underperformance causes students to perform poorly.
However, research has demonstrated that the influence of a role model can curb the impact of this phenomenon, known as stereotype threat. For example, when exposed to an accomplished female in their field before taking a test, female math students performed better than peers who had not had the opportunity.
Building a Pipeline of Mentors
Mentorship not only benefits students, but can also be an incredibly enriching experience for professionals. Serving as a mentor can help STEM professionals improve their leadership skills, hone their communication skills, and become more engaged members of their communities.
When students are influenced by the guidance of a mentor, they are likely to pay it forward later in their lives and glean these benefits for themselves. Thus, mentorship is an effective and invaluable cycle that can help create a bright future for STEM in the United States.