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Decline in STEM Enrollments Highlights Importance of Mentorship

Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
(Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—Recent data is showing a decline in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM) that could create long-term economic problems for the U.S. and compound long-standing problems of getting girls and students from Black and Hispanic backgrounds involved in technology and STEM-related careers. 

That has prompted Caitlin Kalinowski, head of hardware for Oculus at Facebook Reality Labs to come out strongly in favor of better programs for mentoring students. 

A release highlighting her support for mentorship noted that recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study found that  college enrollment in physical science programs dropped by 7.6%, math and statistics saw a decline of 2.5% and engineering reported a decline of 3.5%.

The declines during the pandemic could exacerbate the long-standing problem of diversity in the engineering, tech and scientific fields. 

Various studies have shown that as girls progress through high school, their interest in STEM dwindles. Sixty percent of girls interested in STEM as ninth graders will not stay on that career path by high school graduation.

In addition, 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.(3) 

Caitlin Kalinowski argues that a lack of mentoring and guidance within STEM fields of study is one important reason for these declines. 

“Mentorships are integral to increasing minority interest and ensuring success,” Kalinowski explains. “”Many of the disparities we see with women and minorities in STEM come from waning interest over time, or concerns about getting involved in unknown academic arenas. Official mentoring programs are important, but more important is making a connection with someone and using that to drive the mentoring relationship,” 

Kalinowski believes that there are millions of brilliant minds not getting the attention and guidance they deserve. In order to better serve these groups (women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other underrepresented groups), she believes companies and schools need to provide mentors who look like them—who are also part of these groups. 

“Mentoring is a big issue because there's a lot of things that we don't formally teach about being in a STEM career in school or in your job training,” she said. “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.”

To address that issue, companies need to develop official mentoring programs, Kalinowski advises. However, it’s not just about pairing like-minded individuals. It’s about offering someone who has context. Often, that person will lead the mentee to understand projects better, and even describe a different way of looking at things, since they may have a higher degree of visibility across the whole organization. Plus, the mentors can use their network to make introductions that are vital to the young person’s development.

It is also crucial that mentors themselves are motivated. Often that has to do with finding the right people and getting the right levels of commitment. The goals have to be clearly defined. Equally as important is that the relationship must be bidirectional. The days of a lecturing mentor with a “do-as-I-say” attitude no longer works, she said. 

“Underrepresented groups in STEM want a mentor who will see the relationship as a two-way street, where the mentor can learn from the mentee just as much,” she said. “There has to be an exchange of ideas and there have to be many questions asked from both sides. The unidirectional, old-school way of looking at things is dated and stale. The mentor needs to feel that he or she is also getting something out of this. Both will grow and that benefits the organization and society as well.”

She highlighted a few keys to a successful mentoring program: 

  • Have clear and defined goals and expectations.
  • Mentors have to be willing to listen, not just speak.
  • There needs to be a vetting process to ensure both mentors and mentee share the same goals and the same vision.
  • The company has the obligation to institute official mentoring programs, but it also needs to encourage employees to seek out a mentor on their own. And once that happens, it is vital that the employer support the initiative with enough resources.
  • Companies should not underestimate the value of apprenticeship programs.

 More information can be found here