Can Mentorships Get More Girls Into STEM Subjects?
As Saneeya Khan looks around at her workplace, she doesn’t see many people who look like her. Khan works as a UX designer, and says her industry is male-dominated—a fact that hasn’t changed much since she switched over from graphic design for the new challenges and opportunities that UX presented.
“I think the number one reason that women fall out of STEM is because they get in the workplace and find that it’s a very masculine-dominated field, and that there’s a lot of office politics to deal with,” says Khan, who adds that despite the number of women working in technical careers, very few of them hold senior-level positions within their respective industries. “Most of the tech leads in my office are men, and we have one head female software developer. That’s about it.”
All that might change, if she has anything to say about it. As a teen, Khan taught herself Photoshop and is now focused on helping girls follow her lead and create successful STEM pathways for themselves as a mentor for ListoAmerica, part of the Clubhouse Network, which provides after school mentoring opportunities in underserved communities. She teaches digital design, shows students how to use different software programs and helps them conceptualize their ideas.
Right now, Khan is mentoring a high school senior who loves drawing comics, but who needs help translating her art—and the storylines and character development that go along with—into the digital space. “She does most of her stuff on paper, and I’ve been teaching her to use more digital tools like tablets,” says Khan, who spends Wednesday evenings at ListoAmerica, working with her mentee. “She has a lot of ideas floating around in her head, and I’m helping her focus them.”
Sharing Wisdom and Support
In the business world, mentors are trusted confidantes who share wisdom, support, and knowledge over an extended period. Working with a “mentee,” they’ve likely already been through the ringer, so to speak, and can offer tips and advice that help their protégés avoid making the same mistakes they did.
The same concept applies in education, and especially in the STEM sector, where EdSurge found mentors working with girls of all ages. Whether they’re helping mentees pick a career path, hone their design skills, or figure out how a rocket can safely land on Mars, these mentors bring their individual skill sets and experience to the table in the quest to get (and keep) more girls interested in technical fields.
Because girls “don’t know what they don’t know,” so to speak, mentorships can open them up to new opportunities they may not have had access to. They can also help keep more of them interested in technical education and the related career opportunities. That’s especially important in an era where Microsoft says just 60 percent of girls understand the relevancy of STEM subjects to their own personal and professional pursuits, with a lack of mentors and role models being one of the main culprits.
“Research shows that life experience and human relationships give us a sense of what’s possible,” says David Shapiro, the CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, “and help us navigate to those possibilities.”
By leading through example and sending early signals that success is possible. STEM mentors can help young girls understand that—even if they’re not being encouraged by their parents, friends or teachers to explore engineering and science—someone who is like them is already out there doing it successfully.
“When you can give mentees a vision or example of what they want to be in engaging and captivating terms,” Shapiro explains, “it creates a pretty powerful opportunity to get more girls interested in STEM.”
Something She Wished She’d Had
According to the National Science Board, women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
There’s a chance that number could get even smaller over the next decade, according to Girls Who Code, which estimates that just 22 percent of computer scientists will be women in 2027, down from 37 percent in 1995.
When Chloé Greppi was transitioning from undergraduate student to research technician to graduate school, she wishes she’d been able to talk to and brainstorm with someone who had already “been there and done that” in the field of scientific research, she explains.
“I basically did what I felt like I needed to do, and without any advice or direction,” says Greppi, who is in her fifth year of a Ph.D. program in biology. “It would have been valuable to have women currently working in STEM to talk to about how they got to where they are now, what factored into their decision-making, and what experiences to seek out or avoid.”
Where a lack of mentors may have challenged this researcher, it wound up creating opportunities for other young girls who share a passion for science. “While working as a research technician, I had a random thought about doing some science outreach,” Greppi recalls. In 2012, after hearing about Science Club for Girls, which runs programs for girls in both K-5 and middle school, she became a mentor for the group.
“We’re a team of a few ‘mentor scientists’ who are mostly graduate or post-doctoral students,” says Greppi, who adds that she was shocked at how much third-grade girls wanted to get their hands dirty. “They were curious, engaged, and excited to be there.” They were also making connections between STEM and everyday life—a point that the Microsoft report highlighted as a major stumbling block for girls in STEM.
Twice a year, Greppi helps to develop a curriculum that “helps bring home all of the complicated topics and helps youngsters relate them to their everyday life.” Recently, Greppi was working one-on-one with a fourth-grader, who may well become an aeronautical engineer one day, figure out the best way to create a soft landing for a rocket.
“She was struggling with the idea that there’s no atmosphere, so you may need jets to propel the rocket in the air for a softer landing,” says Greppi, whose mentee used an egg, cotton balls, straws, and toothpicks to develop a model. Then a lightbulb went on above the youngster’s head. “All on her own,” Greppi says, “she came up with her version of a soft landing enabled by a parachute. It was pretty ingenious.”
The Reluctant Mentor
When Susan Hunt retired from high school counseling three years ago, she was instantly courted by a parent to help mentor students interested in STEAM via the Gold Crown Foundation’s enrichment programs. “I didn’t miss my job, but I did miss working with kids,” Hunt explains, “so I said yes.”
As it happens, Hunt had no experience teaching STEAM, nor did she have much of an interest in it. “I’m not artistic, mathematical or engineering-oriented,” she admits, “but I love kids and my passion is making sure they have the information they need to pursue opportunities after high school, be it college, internships, apprenticeships or something else.”
That passion was enough to get Hunt started as a mentor for Gold Crown Foundation, which works with youngsters as young as 10 in an area that’s underserved by other entities. She works with boys and girls who were selected to participate in the group’s C2C Pathways program. A year-long program for approximately 20 teens, ages 16 to 21, the program includes workforce development training, job shadowing and a summer internship.
Right now, Hunt is working one-on-one with a C2C Pathways graduate who did very well in the program and the related internship, but whose academic progress hasn’t been as positive. Interested in pursuing a STEAM education and career, she’s working with Hunt on a plan of action that could find her attending a lesser-known college close to home and then transferring to a larger university once she gets her grades up.
“This is just where you start, and not where you will finish,” Hunt assured the girl, knowing that her support could go a long way in helping her mentee successfully navigate the STEAM path. “I’m helping her understand that if she spends one year at a college near home, working on her academics, then the doors could open up for her down the road. Still, she’s suffering some disappointment right now as the reality hits her.”
Hunt says she’s seen other girls managing similar disappointments, and says that many of them just don’t get the support they need at home. That’s where mentors can make a difference by bringing a fresh, adult perspective to the situation. “When you’re focused on keeping a roof over your family’s head and food on the table, it can be difficult to also serve as your child’s academic and career advisor,” says Hunt. “Mentoring helps to fill some of those gaps.”
Khan, the UX designer, sees mentoring as a good way to get more girls involved with STEM at both the educational and career levels, and says it can be really beneficial for those mentees to see that “those who came before them” are thriving in their own careers.
At this point, however, she’s not sure just how much impact she’s having on the girls that she works with. “I can’t say for sure if what I’m doing is making a difference because these girls are still so young,” she says. “It would be interesting to follow up with them in 10 years to see how it worked out.”