Given that a diverse workforce is considered crucial to the advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the fact that several groups are woefully underrepresented in these fields is of great concern. Mentoring has been identified as an effective tool not only for attracting and retaining students from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines, but also for improving their academic performance. Unfortunately, although some studies on the mentoring of minority students in engineering have been performed and their results have been published, many questions in this area remain unanswered. For instance, the literature on the subject is silent regarding whether any potential benefits could be obtained by housing mentoring initiatives in research centers as opposed to following the traditional option of basing these programs in traditional engineering departments. In fact, this lack of knowledge evinces a missed opportunity, since research centers commonly display several characteristics that could render them an excellent environment for mentoring efforts designed to increase minority participation in engineering. Indeed, research centers typically count with research portfolios focused on topical problems or subjects instead of closely tracking specific disciplines; moreover, research centers commonly display higher research staff-to-student ratios, in addition to the fact that their staff does not experience the role strain caused by the teaching and administrative load of faculty, all conditions which can result in a more engaging, immersive and personalized mentoring experience.
Notably, a mentoring initiative based at a research center – and funded by the Broadening Participation in Engineering program of the National Science Foundation – is currently striving to accomplish three main goals: 1) to motivate African American, Hispanic and Native American students to study engineering and help them graduate with engineering degrees; 2) to help these students acquire the skills they need to become engineering professionals, academics, leaders and role models; and 3) to investigate if mentoring in research centers offers advantages over mentoring in traditional engineering departments. In effect, this mentoring initiative is attempting to fill the aforementioned knowledge gap, and do so by being mindful of and contending to avoid the shortcomings afflicting previous mentoring studies. To that end, both cross-sectional and longitudinal components have been integrated in a quasi-experimental approach including multiple controls. Furthermore, both objective (e.g., GPAs and retention rates) and subjective (e.g., feelings of integration to the university environment and opinions on the importance of having a mentor of the same race and/or gender) data are being acquired, monitored and evaluated in and attempt to assess the effectiveness of this initiative and understand the lived experience of participating students.
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