For the last six years a STEM outreach center at an urban R1 university has worked with programs that utilize near-peer mentoring of pre-college students by undergraduate students in engineering and science.
In 2012, engineering and science undergraduate students participating in a social entrepreneurship course developed a proposal to create a student organization that used Science Olympiad as a vehicle to inspire middle school students to consider STEM majors and to increase their interest in STEM. Science Olympiad is a national non-profit organization whose mission is to “improve the quality of K-12 science education, increase male, female and minority interest in science, [and] create a technologically-literate workforce”.
The undergraduate students served as mentors to local schools with Science Olympiad teams. Near-peer mentoring has been shown to be a powerful tool for outreach efforts, both for the mentee (SIGCSE '18 Proceedings of the 49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education Pages 664-669) and the mentor – especially for underrepresented minorities (Perspect Undergrad Res Mentor. 2015;4(1)).
Strategic partnerships, member motivations, financial support and strong student leadership were the main factors in the exponential growth and success of the organization. The organization grew from five initial mentors in 2012 to over 100 mentors in 2018 serving more than 500 middle school students since 2012.
The two main strategic partnerships were the STEM outreach center of the R1 university and the local Science Olympiad coordinator. The STEM outreach center had the connections to the local school district as well as in-house expertise on curriculum development and implementation of out-of-school time STEM programming in PK-12 settings. These connections and expertise allowed the student organization to build a strong foundation of well-trained mentors and locate a pilot school with which to work as it began. The local Science Olympiad coordinator was invested in the success of the local teams and welcomed the support that the student organization gave to both new and veteran coaches.
Many of the undergraduate mentors chose to join this organization because of their own experiences with Science Olympiad before attending university. Not only did they thoroughly enjoy their past experience, most of them wrote or spoke about their experience in their mentor applications or interviews as the reason they were pursuing a STEM major.
The success is shown by both the expansion of the program at the university level (it is currently one of the largest student organizations on campus) as well as integration into the school system’s plan as it seeks to continue the expansion of Science Olympiad to include high schools. The student organization is actively taking a role in supporting this progression into the local high schools.
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