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Mentoring the Next Generation Towards STEM Careers

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Did you have a special chemistry teacher who helped light a spark (and I don't mean a Bunsen burner) that led to a career in science? Or a baseball coach who said your knack for calculating batting averages could be an asset in math class? If so, you're one of the lucky few who was encouraged at an early age in one the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Teenagers are often insecure about their math and science skills or discouraged by peer pressure from pursuing STEM fields; especially women and minorities. National Science Foundation data shows that the science and engineering workforce is largely white and male; Blacks and Hispanics are only 7 percent of the workforce. There's a shortage of qualified U.S. applicants to fill STEM jobs, and significant under-representation of minorities and candidates from low-income and rural backgrounds.

Many students never make it into the STEM pipeline at all, because of inadequate preparation and support in math and science. The U.S. Department of Labor's STEM Workforce Challenge highlights the importance of focusing on K-12 education to increase skilled workers in STEM fields. One of the most effective and innovative ways to introduce students to STEM careers is to match them with caring professional mentors in related fields.

I've spent my career in non-profit organizations that help students find their interests and passions and pursue their hopes and dreams. Six years ago I became the executive director of icouldbe.org, a non-profit that pairs at-risk students with caring professional mentors through a secure online mentoring platform. Over 1,500 volunteer e-mentors guide 2,300 students through a structured year-long curriculum that helps them develop academic, college, and career goals. While students build confidence and decision making skills, mentors benefit by helping a child with a weekly hour-long commitment, from any location with Internet access. icouldbe mentors come from all 50 states and represent diverse careers, including STEM fields such as environmental sciences, engineering, aeronautics, information technology, and scientific research.

While icouldbe mentors at-risk students in all career fields, we recently launched several STEM focused programs. icouldbe's Ying STEM program is structured around mentors and mentees collaborating on science fair projects, matching students with mentors in STEM fields across rural counties in Upstate NY. icouldbe also partners with Let's Go Boys and Girls, which provides STEM programs to children at Boys and Girls Clubs in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

We recently met many promising students at science and engineering fairs in NY and PA. Most students described the important role that their parents and teachers played in helping with questions on their science projects. However we know there are thousands of students who have expressed an interest in STEM fields and science fairs, but have no family support or access to mentors to help them compete. It's essential that we level the playing field and provide adult mentors to the most at-risk students. And the focus needs to expand beyond disadvantaged urban areas-in some rural areas the surrounding communities don't have enough qualified professionals. Online mentoring can eliminate geographic barriers and connect skilled adults with students who need their guidance.

An article in the May 2012 issue of Black Enterprise magazine called "My Cool Stem Career," highlights three STEM success stories with a common thread; all three had adults who helped propel them into STEM fields. Ronald Hickland Jr. met a bowling ball designer at the age of 15 that sparked his interest in his STEM career. As a student, Ben Cooper e-mailed a NASA expert who introduced him to the terms kinesiology and biomechanics, and started him down the path to become an Army engineer. And Asmau Ahmed became a chemist and launched her own company, inspired by her civil aeronautical engineer father and lawyer/chemist mother. Adult role-models and mentors helped guide all three to pursue their STEM interests.

It's essential that we find a way to create these mentoring relationships and encourage professionals in STEM fields to volunteer their time as e-mentors. I'll never forget the day I was visiting one of our middle schools in the Bronx. I asked the class, "Who thinks their mentor is really cool?" and all the hands shot up at once. One 7th grader shouted, "I have the coolest mentor of all! I always wanted to work in a lab doing medical research and my mentor has been doing that for 30 years! He's helping me figure out how I can have a career just like his."

It's inspiring and encouraging when these relationships form and students grow beyond the classroom, beyond graduation, to a life of promise and success. But we can do more. We can build a nationwide, unified effort to encourage more women and minorities to pursue STEM careers. In addition to individual mentoring, companies can get involved. The Washington Post recently reported on technology companies that are focusing on STEM education for middle and high school students as ways to build talent pipelines. One company focused its giving on local STEM programs, and has already seen a direct return on investment. Another company focuses efforts on an internship program where they find approximately one-third of their employees. icouldbe partners with companies that want to provide their staff with a way to give back and become volunteers. By mentoring a classroom of students, company volunteers dedicate time and resources to help foster the next generation of well-educated and prepared STEM employees.

You can become a mentor and role model for young students and impart valuable insight
and direction to help them pursue their dreams. If you're part of a company that needs more
diverse candidates with STEM skills, we can explore ways to get involved in your community to
support and mentor local youth.

One of the core policy recommendations of the STEM Education Coalition is to expand
the capacity and diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline, including targeted initiatives to
promote the inclusion of underrepresented minorities, women, veterans, and rural populations
in STEM fields. E-Mentoring can help remove the obstacles for students, and unlock their
potential. The next Patricia Bath, Otis Boykin, Ellen Ochoa, or Luis Alvarez could be sitting in
an underserved classroom right now. Let's mentor the next STEM generation together.