Your students are some of the best resources in your school. With the right encouragement, they can help each other, build each other up, and improve the entire school’s academic success. However, this process rarely happens organically. Students need guidance to become peer mentors and help their classmates explore STEAM (STEM + Art) topics.
Teachers and parents can both start STEAM peer-mentorship programs within their schools and communities, they just need the tools to do it. Here’s why you should explore this learning option and how you can develop a mentorship program in your area.
Mentorship Keeps Students on the STEAM Path
Mentoring has a real impact on student lives. In an article for Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit, Jorge Perez, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, reports that at-risk students who receive mentorship are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions.
These statistics can apply to STEAM learning as well. Students who receive peer mentorship, and work with peers of similar gender, racial, and economic backgrounds, are more likely to stay involved instead of dropping out.
Dr. Emily Agard sees benefits in mentorship programs as director of SciXchange at Ryerson University in Toronto. A few of these include:
- Building self-confidence as mentees gain peer acceptance and knowledge.
- Increased inclusion in science and tech subjects, fighting both the gender and racial gaps in STEAM.
- Increased leadership skills as mentors learn from their mentees and develop their soft skills along with hard knowledge of various subjects.
All of these factors increase participation in STEAM and prevent students, particularly women, from opting out.
Case Study: Skyline High School, Ann Arbor
Skyline High School in the Ann Arbor Public School System started a math mentoring program that has quickly expanded over the past few years. In 2017, there were more than 50 mentors supporting 13 classes, helping students with algebra and geometry.
Students work in small, mentor-led groups, and mentors receive elective credit hours for participating. Younger students benefit from more attention (instead of the standard one teacher to 20 student ratio) and older students gain teaching and leadership experience.
Why Student Mentorship is Effective
When done well, peer mentorship helps students connect to the material and express their concerns and frustrations with their classes. It can also challenge students to push each other and strive to succeed in STEAM fields.
Students Look Up to Peers as Role Models
While adult mentors and tutors can be effective in the right environment, peer mentors can influence students in ways adults can’t. An adult will always be an authority figure or caretaker, never a best friend or classmate.
“To a child, adulthood is a mythical, far-away land reserved for grown-ups who are done with school,” Brian P. Gatens writes at the Concordia University blog Room 241. “Meanwhile, students just a little bit older than them offer a strong example: a ‘cool’ factor that seems just outside their reach.”
Gatens encourages teachers to form partnerships with each other to create a buddy system where older students mentor younger ones. One option is to host a “teaching day,” where older students lead the class of younger students.
Students want to mirror their cooler peers, and if older students think STEAM is cool, then younger students will think so too.
Students Feel Comfortable Sharing With Each Other
Not only do older students have a “cool factor,” they also understand the struggles and problems of their younger peers. When you were in middle school, did you have the pressure of social media, texting, cyberbullying, and sexting? These kids are facing a totally different world and it can affect their educational lives.
“Human connection built on trust is the glue that binds students’ academic and personal lives and helps them make sense of their futures,” Lauren Faggella at Summit Learning writes.
She explains that peers feel comfortable sharing their insecurities and fears, two things they might not want to say to adults or think they might not get honest answers about. The wrong answer from a tone-deaf adult can actually push students away from STEAM learning instead of assuaging their concerns.
Case Study: Glenbrook South High School, Glenview, Illinois
Glenview’s Got STEAM is a great example of a student STEAM mentor success story. Six high school girls formed the organization this year to inspire younger girls to pursue their interests in science, math, and engineering. The organization holds monthly workshops for fifth through eighth grade girls, though boys are welcome to join.
The girls STEAM program was founded when the six founding students realized they were the only females showing up to STEAM-themed events and wanted to encourage more girls to participate.
How to Develop a STEAM Peer Mentor Program in Your Area
Every STEAM mentor program will look different from others, but there are common threads between the successful ones that keep students involved. Here are a few ways you can set your mentor program up for success through this school year and beyond.
Look for Financial Support from Administrators and Stakeholders
The creator behind Girls Can’t What? says most student organizers start their mentorship program without thinking about funding. Even if you can use a classroom or library for free, you will inevitably need school supplies, resources, and other items to keep your organization going.
Applying for funding or grants can help your organization grow while removing the stress of out-of-pocket expenses.
“Also, don’t be afraid to ask your group members to help share costs,” Gretchen writes. “Ask for volunteers to bring refreshments or donate their time to help with meeting prep or other services. People are usually willing to help, but most need to be prompted to take action.”
Encourage as Many Students as Possible to Attend
Additionally, your mentorship program should be inclusive. Glenview’s Got STEAM program’s target audience is girls, but boys are also welcome. Many mentorship programs occur during the school day, which allows everyone to participate, including students who can’t stay after school because they take the school bus home.
Consider the situations in your community and make sure your program is available to as many people as possible.
“At-risk students can’t afford to put their futures on hold,” Christopher Yanov, founder of Reality Changers, a college-prep mentor organization in San Diego, says. “Gangs don’t have a waiting list.”
If you need more participants, consider expanding the program outside your school or opening it up to include college students or adult mentors.
Partner With Local Libraries and Community Centers
Peer mentorship doesn’t need to be limited to the school system. The Seminole County Public Library in Florida launched a program to encourage girls to learn about STEAM subjects. The program pairs teen mentors with tweens ages 8-12 to create projects and run experiments weekly. The girls provide feedback on their favorite lessons so the library system can improve them each year.
Build a Detailed Mentorship Program With Goals and Objectives
In an article for Character.org, Margo Ross at the Center for Supportive Schools, highlights the criteria every peer mentorship program should have. These include:
- Establishing goals and measurable objectives before a project begins
- Developing a stakeholder team to provide resources (math teachers, principals, school counselors)
- Training for both adult stakeholders and peer mentors as to how to lead students and guide lessons
- Involving parents in the curriculum and program development process
A strong infrastructure will prevent the program from falling apart or moving off-topic. And while students might lead their peers in mentoring, adult guidance can give the program direction.
Case Study: Riverdale Country School, Bronx
An example of this infrastructure is the peer-to-peer program at Riverdale Country School in Bronx, New York. The school developed their peer mentorship program to help incoming sixth grade students get used to middle school life. Two eighth grade students work with groups of 10 sixth grade students and lead them through activities and discussions. This wouldn’t succeed without the school counselors, who meet with the mentors for training and feedback weekly.
Teach Students to Guide and Coach
The team at Owlcation says peer mentors are supposed to be coaches, not crutches. Mentors aren’t there to do the work for your students, but rather give them the tools to do it themselves.
Training your mentoring team on open-ended questions and leading phrases like, “walk me through how you would do this” can make those mentors more effective and of greater learning value to the younger students.
Additional Resources for Teachers in Need of STEAM Mentors
If you’re looking to develop a STEAM peer mentor program, the National Mentoring Resource Center is a great place to start. Their resource center has webinars, studies, toolkits and other training options to help your mentorship program. Even if you have never led or formed a mentor program before, this site has tools you can use.
Education Northwest has a valuable resource section for helping mentors and mentees work together, including a 48-page guide for new mentors who want to form connections with their mentees.
Additionally, there is good news for parents and teachers who want their students to take part in mentoring or receive STEAM mentoring even when their schools do not have the programs. Science Buddies offers science fair project ideas and guides for students. There’s also an “Ask an Expert” forum where students can ask questions about science topics and get answers from students who have been there before. High school student volunteers donate about an hour a week answering questions and helping their peers online.