Mentoring Matters: Building Social Capital as the Bridge to Success

Photo credit: 1001Love from Getty Images Signature

It’s a New Year and a great time to celebrate the power of role models and mentors. STEM role models help strengthen important outcomes for kids, including increased positive attitudes about STEM, increased positive STEM identities, and increased STEM career knowledge. In fact, role models and mentors are a key pillar of STEM Next’s success with the Million Girls Moonshot, which has reached almost 3 million youth across the country in just three years.

In celebration of National Mentoring Month, STEM Next offers six ideas for adults to advocate, connect, and uplift young people in STEM.

  1. Prioritize youth who may need additional support to realize their dreams in STEM. Unlike some peers, youth who are disabled may have less access to opportunities where they can see a future in STEM. Mentors can be a source of support, dispel stereotypes, and show by example how to advocate for oneself. Inclusive Mentoring for Youth with Disabilities Supplement to the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring was developed by MENTOR and Partners for Youth with Disabilities to help mentoring programs assess how well they are doing and identify ways to deepen their commitment to inclusion. Making Mentors pairs autistic high school students with autistic college students and takes a strengths-based approach to supporting STEM pathways. For additional ideas for making STEM more inclusive, check out this blog, STEM Education and Youth Who are Disabled: We’re Overdue for Inclusivity.

Photo credit: The New York Academy of Sciences

2. Create lasting relationships. For example, provide your business card AND invite youth to check in as they make summer plans, apply for scholarships, or take on an internship. These interactions give youth practice working on relationships and asking for help. Invite them to cultural or work-related functions where they can practice social and networking skills. Be proactive and let youth know you want to hear from them. These efforts help young people become comfortable reaching out for help. This is especially important for youth who might not have the confidence or experience interacting with adults or who are unsure if they fit in STEM. Check out the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences to learn about a mentoring program designed to inspire a lifelong interest in STEM for elementary and middle school youth.

3. Open your networks to expand the social networks of youth. Reach out to friends and colleagues who can be mentors and bring diverse backgrounds, experiences, interests, and resources. Make a virtual introduction or set up an in-person meetup to launch a new mentoring opportunity. Introduce youth to organizations like Society of Hispanic Professional EngineersNational Society of Black Engineers, and National Center for Women and Information Technology, which include outreach as part of their mission. Million Girls Moonshot partners with these groups and offers resources to support mentors and role models. The Moonshot also offers opportunities for STEM professionals and enthusiasts to share their work virtually with support and a low barrier of entry.

4. Talk about personal experiences accessing mentors. Help youth understand how building social capital takes time and practice. Bring to life how you mobilized relationships and sought help when needed. Knowing how you overcame fears about asking for help will be reassuring. Knowing how to nurture relationships, express gratitude, and ask for help are lifelong lessons for success. Encourage youth to look to their peers as mentors. Peer Connections Reimagined is a great resource from the Christensen Institute. The report highlights how peer connections support youths’ well-being and growth, enrich their learning experiences, and expand career options.

Photo credit: National Girls Collaborative Project

5. Help caregivers understand the value of mentors and how they can encourage their child to build relationships with adults. Host a workshop for families and help them understand that building social capital is an important skill for their child to develop — just as important as learning math, reading, and writing. For families who need support, help them connect with teachers, counselors, and educators who can help find mentors for their child. Connect them to resources like EngineerGirlMentorNet, and National Girls Collaborative Project.

Photo credit: National Center for Women and Information Technology

6. Mentor boys and men to be allies of girls in STEM. We’ve been working to close the gender gap in STEM for decades and yet the gaps remain. Boys and men need to be part of the solution in closing the gaps. We know that girls have an interest and aptitude for STEM early on, but their confidence and engagement decline over time. In part, these declines are related to their sense of belonging. Encouraging girls in the classroom, afterschool and summer programs, at home, and in the community can give girls a safe space to continue their exploration of science and engineering. For inspiration in supporting boys and men in this work, look to the Male Allies and Advocates Toolkit by the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

We know the positive impact of mentors in the lives and futures of youth. When adults are eager to help they can pave the way to internships, offer guidance during a critical juncture in academic journeys, and introduce colleagues who expand networks that lead to dream jobs.

We are committed to doing our part to decrease the divide between youth born into families and communities with resourced-networks and those with STEM potential that can be activated with help from mentors. STEM Next works to ensure every child has STEM opportunities that inspire curiosity, innovation, and the critical thinking skills for whatever comes next. We hope you will join us and support mentoring that builds STEM social capital for youth nationwide.

Linda Kekelis, Ph.D. I am an advisor for The Family Engagement Project for STEM Next Opportunity Fund. I have devoted my lifetime to supporting families, educators, and role models in encouraging girls in STEM. I have witnessed firsthand how mentors and role models can be the “secret sauce” in helping inspire and sustain youths’ engagement in STEM.

Teresa Drew, I am the Deputy Director of STEM Next Opportunity Fund an organization laser-focused on making out-of-school STEM opportunities a reality for millions of young people to help them thrive in STEM and beyond. We work in all 50 states, placing growing STEM leaders, advancing evidence-based practices and placing big bets, to create a future where every child has STEM opportunities that inspire curiosity, innovation, and the critical thinking skills for whatever comes NEXT.


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