The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drop in college enrollment, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study shows college enrollment in physical science programs fell 7.6%, math and statistics fell 2.5%, and engineering reported decline 3.5%.
At the same time, we know that girls progress in high school, their interest in STEM decreases. Sixty percent of girls interested in STEM as ninth graders will not stay on this career path until they graduate from high school. Additionally, black and Hispanic students leave their STEM major in college at a higher rate than white students: 37% of Hispanic students leave STEM degrees, 40% for students of color, and 29% of white students. One of the reasons for this decline, according to product engineer Caitlin Kalinowski, is a lack of mentoring and guidance in STEM fields of study.
“Mentoring is integral to increasing minority interests and success. Many of the disparities we see with women and minorities in STEM stem from waning interest over time or concerns about being involved in unfamiliar academic arenas. Formal mentoring programs are important, but the most important thing is to connect with someone and use that to guide the mentoring relationship, ”says Kalinowski.
Kalinowski believes there are millions of brilliant minds who don’t get the attention and advice they deserve. Much of our future depends on a diverse and successful population of STEM academics and private sector employees who can help solve the most difficult problems of the future, she believes. In order to better serve these groups (women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ + community and other under-represented groups), we need to provide mentors who are like them – who are also part of these groups. As individuals, we tend to flourish best when we have access to role models who are like us, she says. Nichelle Nichols plays Lt. Uhura, communications officer, in ‘Star Trek‘helped influence young women, especially women of color, to join NASA and seek STEM careers.
The importance of mentoring
“Mentoring is a big deal because there is a lot that we don’t formally teach about being in a STEM career in school or in your professional training. What you learn in school is one thing, but what you learn in your job is a whole different matter. It’s hard to buy a book and learn how to build your career, ”says Kalinowski.
Companies should develop formal mentoring programs, advises Kalinowski. However, it’s not just about matching like-minded people. It’s about offering someone who has context. Often times, this person will lead the mentee to understand projects better, and even describe a different way of looking at things, as they may have a higher degree of visibility throughout the organization. In addition, mentors can use their network to make presentations essential to the youth’s development.
The key, she says, is to make sure the mentors themselves are motivated. It’s often about finding the right people and getting the right levels of engagement. The objectives must be clearly defined. Equally important is that the relationship should be two-way. The days of a lecturer mentor with a “do what I say” attitude no longer works.
“Groups that are under-represented in STEM want a mentor who will see the relationship as a two-way street, where the mentor can learn just as much from the mentee. There has to be an exchange of ideas and many questions have to be asked from both sides, ”says Kalinowski. “The one-way, old-school way of looking at things is outdated and obsolete. The mentor needs to feel that he is getting something out of it too. Both will grow and this benefits the organization and society as well. “
The keys to a successful mentoring program
- Have clear, defined goals and expectations.
- Mentors need to be prepared to listen, not just talk.
- There must be a verification process to ensure that the mentors and the mentee share the same goals and vision.
- The company has an obligation to have formal mentoring programs in place, but it must also encourage employees to seek out a mentor themselves. And once that happens, it is essential that the employer supports the initiative with sufficient resources.
- Businesses should not underestimate the value of apprenticeship programs.
Universities and the American workforce know that any decline in the number of STEM students will affect all aspects of future society, says Kalinowski. The fewer scientists, technology experts, engineers, and mathematicians with degrees, the greater the negative impact on America’s future development at all levels. Society must continually move forward and the more future women, minorities, members of the LGBQT + community and other under-represented groups can contribute to STEM, the better the societal outcome.
The solution is simple, says Kalinowski. There needs to be more visibility and more accessibility to role models and mentoring programs to generate interest and hence advancement in STEM fields. Failure to do so wastes millions of fresh, young minds hungry for a chance.
“I like being able to help people see things differently and gain new perspectives on themselves and their careers. In our one-on-one meetings, we discuss their challenges, share ideas and look at things from different perspectives. These conversations, in addition to getting to know each other better, are the aspects of mentoring that I enjoy the most, ”says Kalinowski.