A+ Advice for Parents

Mentors Inspire Girls to Pursue Stem Careers

Q: My daughter, a high school freshman, does well in math and science. Her counselor suggested that we find her a female mentor to foster her interest in these subjects and help her set career goals. Is this a good idea? How would we find one?

A: The counselor is looking out for your daughter's future. The nation needs our brightest kids to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

According to a 2009 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among wealthy nations, United States high school students rank 23rd in science and 31st in math. According to the National Academies ("Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine"), the U.S. ranks 27th in college graduates with degrees in science and math. And according to the Association for Women in Science, females represent only one-fourth of the STEM workforce. Many thousands of STEM jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified candidates.

Is mentoring effective? There is good evidence that a strong mentoring relationship can enhance a student's school performance, improve relationships with parents and peers and reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use. Folks at the Search Institute, a research organization devoted to understanding "what kids need to succeed," say young people have a better chance of reaching their full potential if they have at least three nonparent adult mentors in their lives.

To find a mentor, start with your own networks. "Many STEM professionals would love to coach a motivated young person. Often they just need to be asked," says Nancy Bourne, Florida Teacher of the Year for Engineering and a STEM Club leader.

If your search comes up short, look for national and local organizations such as fabfems.org, a directory of women in STEM jobs committed to putting girls on paths to STEM careers.

Don't rule out online mentoring. A recent study on e-mentoring found that it can be as effective as in-person interactions.

Meaningful mentoring relationships are often forged in labs and other workplaces, says Cathy Trivigno, a researcher at The Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla.

"A Google search will turn up summer internships and camps that introduce high school girls to STEM careers," she says. "Getting into one can give her a chance to work alongside highly skilled professionals, and, if she's motivated, she'll get plenty of encouragement."

A mentor-mentee relationship might take a while to get going, says Bourne, who adds, "the best mentors are 'real' people who will connect with a teen's multiple interests; who can talk about their everyday lives, families, pets, and hobbies, along with the satisfactions of their jobs."

Male or female, what counts is the mentor's ability to listen, coach, inspire and share stories of their failures as well as their successes. This helps teens develop less-stereotyped images of science and engineering fields.

Bourne says, "I always tell students that Newton's law of gravity didn't suddenly appear one day when he saw an apple fall from a tree. He had prepared his mind with his hard work and curious nature to be able to formulate a gravitational theory at that moment.

"Newton wrote: 'I keep the subject constantly before me ... 'till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into the full and clear light.'"

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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