Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields have received a lot of attention recently. Part of this attention comes from the growing number of jobs and career opportunities that an education in these areas would allow a student to pursue. However, another area of attention has been the lack of diversity in the STEM fields.
Dr. Jennifer Dearolf and Dr. Laura MacDonald, both professors in the biology department, have together decided to try and do something about this problem here at Hendrix College. The two professors created the STEM mentoring program as part of an Odyssey professorship they were awarded.
The program is modeled after a mentorship program at Brandeis University called the Science Posse that aims at reaching out to underrepresented students in science. The mentoring program at Hendrix College is aimed at women, LGBTQ students, students from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background, students who are first-time college students from their family, and students who identify as a racial minority.
The program then matches these students with mentors who also represent a group that is often underrepresented in STEM fields. Key to the program is that students are able to have a relationship with someone who wants to do similar things in their life and then see representation of their own background in that role. For Dr. Dearolf, this is vital to an individual’s success.
“It’s hard to know how to get there when you don’t know who to talk to,” Dearolf stated. “It’s one thing to talk to one person who had a completely different experience. If you can talk to someone who looks like you and who has had experiences similar to you then that’s going to be a lot more helpful in the long run.”
Currently, the program has about sixteen mentees and four mentors. Mentees will be matched with a mentor and be able to work with and have meetings with their mentor. One important aspect of the program is that in the upcoming year there will be four different undergraduate research opportunities for the mentees in the program. These opportunities will be completely controlled by the students who will be able to conduct any research in any interest they may have.
The importance of this aspect is that research is such a vital aspect of the STEM fields and too often underrepresented groups are especially unable to find opportunities for them in research. Research will also allow these students a greater chance at finding an interest in their fields which may lead to future career possibilities later.
Dr. MacDonald believes that the STEM mentoring program will have an important effect on building a stronger community in the natural sciences. This community will include those students that are mentees and mentors, but also will includes students outside of the program as well who will now be able to reach out to those in these underrepresented groups now that they are more visible and active in STEM programs. The importance of the program is the support system it creates for those students who are lacking representation.
Dr. MacDonald stated that for the most part all these students require is, “some extra support for opportunities that they either don’t have access to for a variety of reasons or don’t even know exist.”
Both Dr. Dearolf and Dr. MacDonald hope that in the long term the STEM mentoring program will be able to sustain itself. They both highlighted a high level of interest in the program that demonstrated a need from the student body for an organization which would help the STEM fields and Hendrix College become more diverse and inclusive to all backgrounds.