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Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students Introduction

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Despite having experience with teaching, conducting research, and advising in your field, you may not be acquainted with research-based best practices that contribute to student persistence in STEM fields, including ways to improve access to mentoring practices


The posting below is from the Introduction to the book, Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students: A Research-Based Guide for Faculty and Administrators, by Becky Wai-Lang Packard. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2016 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Throwing Down the Gauntlet: The Need to Revolutionize Higher Education


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Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students Introduction


Bill Gomez is a computer science professor at a large state research university. Every year he leads a summer program for students who have completed their first year of college. After consistently seeing very few women enroll in the summer program, he wants to improve recruitment by changing his strategy. How can Bill restructure the program to attract more women students to study computer science during their transition to college?

Susan Mason, a chemistry professor who teaches at a private liberal arts college, has noticed that many students of color take Chemistry 1, but they do not continue on to Chemistry 2, the gateway course to a chemistry major. How can Susan design a mentoring initiative to help students of color proceed successfully through this gateway into the major?

Mark Sanderson, a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) dean at a state university’s branch campus, wants to help community college transfer students succeed; many of them are also first-generation college students and would benefit from more intensive professional mentoring as they enter the job market. What kind of mentoring elements should Mark include?

As with many faculty and administrators in STEM fields, you may find yourself designing an initiative to improve the mentoring of college students. [1] Perhaps you are applying for a federal research grant and want to include a compelling section about how your work will broaden the participation of STEM students. Your focus may be on finding new ways you or your department colleagues can play a more active role in supporting persistence in STEM fields of underrepresented students, including women, students of color, first-generation college students, or community college transfer students. [2]

Despite having experience with teaching, conducting research, and advising in your field, you may not be acquainted with research-based best practices that contribute to student persistence in STEM fields, including ways to improve access to mentoring practices. Mentoringis a broad concept, a term that refers to many different kinds of relationships, programs, and initiatives. Studies about mentoring are scattered across various bodies of literature, making an effective synthesis difficult to quickly generate. The reality is that those of us who are in the position to design mentoring initiatives cannot possibly share the lived experiences of all our students. We can, however, learn about the issues students face, and we can improve the ways in which we design, implement, and sustain mentoring initiatives in our departments and institutions.

The focus of my research is the mentoring and persistence of underrepresented students in STEM fields, and I often consult with faculty in STEM departments who are trying to design effective mentoring initiatives. Although Bill, Susan, and Mark are fictional composite characters in this book, their situations are representative of the wide range of cases on which I have been consulted. My interest in this work was sparked years ago when I participated in a summer science research program. In that project, my faculty mentor and I worked with staff at our local science museum on an initiative designed to foster interest in science among school-age students. [3] My participation was a life-changing experience. I went on to earn my doctorate, win grants to support my research, and I am a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. As I identify both as a first-generation college graduate and a person of color, my commitment to mentoring is deeply personal, and my recommendations are informed by years of research and practice.

I understand that as a faculty member or administrator, time is precious; you probably do not have time to sift through the literature on mentoring diverse students or cold-call other institutions to find out about the nuances of their programs. That is why I wrote Successful STEM Mentoring Initiatives for Underrepresented Students: A Research-Based Guide for Faculty and Administrators.  This book is written for you. It is intended to guide the mentoring design process for you and your colleagues in departments of science and engineering in colleges and universities, help you recognize obstacles students may face, encourage you to consider a variety of promising mentoring approaches, and troubleshoot potential pitfalls in communication. Before going into the contents of the book, let’s review why it’s worth spending the time learning more about mentoring and persistence of underrepresented students in STEM fields.

Why Do We Need to Recruit Students into STEM and Help Them Persist?

According to the National Science Board, the nation faces significant challenges in recruiting and retaining a diverse domestic and global workforce. [4] Women, first-generation college graduates, and people of color, among others, are not working in STEM careers in numbers comparable to their presence in the workforce. [5] African Americans earn 7% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM. [6] Women earn fewer than 25% of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year for engineering and computer science. [7] This is unfortunate because the largest projected growth in employment is happening in STEM fields, and these careers require at least a bachelor’s degree. [8] Business leaders, educators, and government officials are united in their concern about these statistics. [9]

Persistence in STEM is often described using the metaphor of a leaky pipeline; that is, the number of potential members of the STEM workforce gradually declines because of the many “leaks” throughout K-12 education, college, and in the workforce. [10] Only about 30% of students who enter college intend to major in science or engineering, and fewer than 50% of these students complete that intended STEM major. [11] What’s more, only 26% of STEM graduates are working in STEM careers. [12] Some leave STEM after earning their PhD. [13] Thus, while the opportunities in STEM are numerous, we do not see many students persisting.

Women and people of color are more likely to leave STEM fields than men or White students. [14] Community college students are also more likely to leave STEM fields before receiving an associate’s degree. According to a study in Ohio, only 15% of entering community college students aspired to a STEM major, and only 15% of those original students earned an associate’s degree. [15] Only 5% of the associate’s degrees earned nationwide by women each year are in STEM. [16] Community college students are more likely to be of nontraditional age, students of color, working while going to school, and women. [17] You may not realize that STEM transfer students, particularly women and people of color, who arrive in four-year college or university classrooms have beaten tremendous odds to get there.

During the educational process, it is natural, of course, for some students to leave STEM fields as they engage in course work and learn more about a range of possibilities; some come to realize they are more interested in another field. [18] However, students leave STEM fields for many reasons. [19] These include a lack of information about STEM careers, limited opportunities to participate in research or other career-relevant activities, STEM courses that seem irrelevant to the world’s problems, or a chilly climate in departments and workplaces for people from their social identity group. [20] Research shows that many college students who opt out of STEM are exactly the talented and capable students we’d like to keep. [21]

While the metaphor of the leaky pipeline is helpful in understanding persistence in STEM, it only takes us so far. A leaky pipeline implies that we start with a finite number of interested and capable college students and lose them over time. We need to imagine multiple paths leading intoSTEM fields. [22] Currently, about one in five people in a STEM career majored in a field other than STEM. [23] Although that’s encouraging, we can do more to create on-ramps into the field. [24] Our departments can play an active role by recruiting students as they make the transition into, throughout, and even after completing college. Throughout this book, I provide examples of ways to create on-ramps into STEM and ways to support students who are already on the road to STEM careers.

Why is Diversity in STEM Valuable?

Why is there value in diversifying the students in your classrooms? It has been argued that science-related fields have historically operated from a standpoint of selectivity and exclusion. [25] This selective exclusion is best exhibited by the strongly held practice of trying to weed out struggling students. [26] It is now accepted that this practice is pedagogically unsound, and educators have shifted away from it, recognizing that diversity and excellence cancoexist. The term inclusive excellencerefers to simultaneously keeping high standards while supporting students from diverse backgrounds and prior experiences. [27] Three complementary perspectives – human capital, innovation, and funding – help make the case for the benefits of diversity, particularly in our STEM classrooms.

When certain groups in our population are not represented in STEM, we are missing out on the contributions of that human capital. In the United States, we cannot expect to compete on a global scale while tapping only a small percentage of students. [28] We know, for example, that few women participate in computer science despite making strides in higher education in general; therefore, we are not involving as many people from our population in computer science as possible. [29]

From an innovative perspective, our society loses out when STEM fields do not draw together people from diverse backgrounds, whether from different lived experiences, with varied cognitive assets, or from diverse disciplines. [30] Diversely composed teams generate more creative and compelling results than more homogenously composed teams. [31] More complex thinking can result from cross-race interactions. [32] The classroom, for example, can promote rich interactions and learning among diverse students. [33]

Funding is also a compelling reason to invest in diversity. The federal government has linked STEM funding opportunities to increasing the diversity of students who pursue STEM careers. For example, National Science Foundation grant applicants must discuss how their projects broaden participation of underrepresented groups by providing outreach, teaching, or training experiences for underrepresented students. Although various grant-funding agencies may use the term underrepresentedto indicate different groups of students, they share the goal of increasing the persistence of all STEM students and graduates. [34] The National Institutes of Health’s grant programs seek to support racial/ethnic minorities in science (defined as Latinos/Hispanic, African American, Native American/Pacific Islanders) as well as students from economically disadvantaged or first-generation backgrounds and students with disabilities. The National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program has broadened its conception of underrepresented groups to include first-generation college and community college students. Knowing more about the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds and about mentoring can help you develop better descriptions of mentoring and persistence when designing initiatives or writing grant proposals to fund them.

Why Is Mentoring a Worthy Investment for STEM Departments?

Mentoring programs are ubiquitous. Many federal grant programs require them but if the programs are designed and implemented well, they work.  When students have positive mentoring experiences, they are more apt to achieve better grades and persist in college. [35] Furthermore, mentoring is a high-impact educational practice, which means that your institution can expect to see increased engagement and retention as a result of your investment. [36] Underrepresented students, [37] including students from low-income backgrounds, particularly benefit from mentoring initiatives. [38] Mentoring experiences contribute positively to persistence in STEM fields. [39]

In this book, I define mentoringas a developmental experience or a type of support intended to advance students toward an important goal. [40] Mentoring interactions have an impact when they communicate messages of invitation or inclusion andequip students to take on the challenges in STEM by increasing their capabilities. To have an impact, you will need to go beyond traditional mentoring programs, which are often beneficial but can be limited in their scope, and infuse mentoring into your learning environment through the core practices of teaching and advising. [41] You will also want to try to improve the overall departmental climate.

Moreover, being able to develop and articulate a multipronged mentoring strategy is one way to invest in student success while communicating that investment to diverse prospective students and their families. When enrollment and graduation rates are used to measure success and allocate resources such as faculty lines and staff support, administrators of institutions are paying more attention than ever to mentoring as a critical investment. New faculty on the job market, and not just those from underrepresented groups, are attracted to workplace environments that emphasize inclusivity and the ability for them to thrive. [42]

What Will You Gain from This Book?

For this book I have assembled key research-based explanations about why underrepresented college students face obstacles in STEM fields and how to translate those obstacles into mentoring opportunities. Start by mapping the landscape of factors so you can see the big picture of student persistence. Then choose a focus and identify where your efforts could have the biggest impact. By looking broadly at the different kinds of mentoring approaches, you can develop a strategy to achieve your goals. And by taking an inventory of the mentoring initiatives you already have, you can try to use your existing resources where possible.

I then describe many excellent approaches being implemented on several campuses, illustrate each approach, and explain why the approach works to improve recruitment and persistence in STEM. My discussion focuses on each of the three key transitions in college: the transition into college, the transition into the major, and the transition into the workplace or graduate school. These transitions are critical times when mentoring initiatives can invite more underrepresented students into STEM departments as well as facilitate their persistence in a field. For each transition, a different case scenario – Bill’s, Susan’s, or Mark’s situation – illustrates the mentoring design process, from consulting your own data sources to clarifying obstacles to developing a mentoring strategy to creating a plan to pilot your efforts and track your progress.  

In the final section, I focus on the nuances of communication in mentoring, which influence the impact you will have. At the individual level, I articulate effective ways to frame difficult mentoring messages to students (e.g., providing constructive feedback about a student’s poor performance). At the departmental level, I provide conversation starters to engage your colleagues in discussions about departmental climate. Whether you embark on a collective curricular project or examine your hiring practices, you will identify steps you can take toward a more inclusive department.

It is important for you to take a step forward wherever you are and with whatever resources you have. The scope of the challenge is large, and yet small changes can tip the balance for your department, making a powerful difference for students and for ourselves. Let’s get started. One student, one colleague, one interaction at a time.

Reader Questions

-       What do I already know about STEM recruitment and persistence? What questions do I have?

-        What ideas do I already have about mentoring, based on my own experiences as a student and in my current role?

-        How might my experiences in STEM departments and in mentoring be similar or different from those of underrepresented students? From those of my colleagues?

-        What’s unique about my institution, my department, or my field? How might that play a role in the challenges we face in regard to diversity?  How might the unique characteristics influence what works?

-        What other questions or ideas do I have?



1.     The definition of STEMcan vary, but in this volume it refers to any field in science, technology, engineering, or math. Note, however, that biological science and electrical engineering, for example, are distinct fields of study and have their own norms, resources, and barriers.

2.    Persistenceis the term used in this book to capture the experiences of students as they continue their pursuit of STEM. Retentiontypically refers to persistence initiatives from the standpoint of the institution.

3.     Paris, S.G., Yambor, K. M., & Packard, B. W. (1998). Hands-on biology: A museum-schools-university partnership for enhancing students’ interest and learning in science. Elementary School Journal, 98(3), 267-288.

4.     National Science Board. (2012). Science and engineering indicators 2012. Retrieved from

5.     National Science Foundation. (2007). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED496396)

6.     Landivar, L. C. (2013). Disparities in STEM employment by sex, race, and Hispanic origin(American Community Survey Reports, ACS-24). Retrieved

7.     Yoder, B. L. (2011). Engineering by the numbers. Retrieved from

8.     Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED524311)

9.     To learn about one initiative involving business leaders, educators, and government officials, see White House. (September 16, 2010). Remarks by the president at the announcement of the “Change the Equation Initiative.” Retrieved from

10.  Preston, A.E. (2004). Plugging the leaks in the scientific workforce. Issues in Science & Technology, 20(4), 69-74.

11.  Higher Education Research Institute. (2010). Degrees of success: Bachelor’s degree completion rates among initial STEM majors.Los Angeles, LA: Author.

12.  Landivar, L.C. (2013). The relationship between science and engineering education and employment in STEM occupations(American Community Survey Reports, ACS-23). Retrieved from

13.  Turk-Bicakci, L., Berger, A., & Haxton, C. (2014). Leaving STEM: STEM Ph.D. holders in non STEM careers. Retrieved from

14.  Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

15.  Bettinger, E.P. (2010). To be or not to be: Major choices in budding scientists. In C. Clotfelter (Ed.), American universities in a global market(pp. 69-98). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

16.  Hardy, D.E., & Katsinas, S.G. (2010). Changing STEM associate’s degree production in public associate’s colleges from 1985 to 2005: Exploring institutional type, gender and field of study. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 16(1), 7-32.

17.  Packard, B.W., Gagnon, J. L., LaBelle, O., Jeffers, K., & Lynn, E. (2011). Women’s experiences in the STEM community college transfer pathway. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 17(2), 129-147.

18.  Thoman, D.B., Arizaga, J.A., Smith, J.L., Story, T.S., & Soncuya, G. (2014). The grass is greener in non-science, technology, engineering, and math classes: Examining the role of competing belonging to undergraduate women’s vulnerability to being pulled away from science. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(2), 246-258. 

19.  Hewlett, S.A., Luce, C. B., Servon, L. J., Sherbin, L., Shiller, P., Sosnovich, E., & Sumberg, K. (2008). The Athena factor: Reversing the brain drain in science, engineering, and technology. Harvard Business Review, 88, 1-100.

20.  Graham, M. J., Frederick, J., Byars-Winston, A., Hunter, A., & Handelsman, J. (2013). Increasing persistence of college students in STEM. Science, 341(6153), 1455-1456.

21.  National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, & Institute of Medicine. (2007). Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

22.  Cannady, M. A., Greenwald, E., & Harris, K. N. (2014). Problematizing the STEM pipeline metaphor: Is the STEM pipeline metaphor serving our students and the STEM workforce? Science Education, 98(3), 443-460.

23.  Landivar, L. C. (2013). The relationship between science and engineering education and employment in STEM occupations(American Community Survey Reports, ACS-23). Retrieved from

24.  Hewlett, S. A., & Luce, S. B. (2005, March). Off-ramps and on-ramps: Keeping talented women on the road to success. Harvard Business Review, 83(3): Retrieved from

25.  Carlone, H.B. (2004). The cultural production of science in reform-based physics: Girls’ access, participation, and resistance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(4), 392-414.

26.  Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

27.  Williams, D. A. (2007). Achieving inclusive excellence: Strategies for creating real and sustained change in quality and diversity. About Campus, 12(1), 8-14.

28.  Ong, M., Wright, C., Espinosa, L., & Orfield, G. (2011). A synthesis of empirical research on graduate and graduate women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Harvard Educational Review, 81(2), 172-209.

29.  Handelsman, J., Cantor, N., Carnes, M., Denton, D., Fine, E., Grosz, B., …[E3] Sheridan, J. (2005). More women in science. Science, 309(5738), 1190-1191.

30.  Alger, J. R. (1997). The educational value of diversity. Academe, 83(1), 20-23.

31.  Page, S. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

32.  Antonio, A. L., Chang, M. J., Hakuta, K., Kenny, D. A., Levin, S., & Milem, J. F. (2004). Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students. Psychological Science, 15(8), 507-510.

33.  Terenzini, P. T., Cabrera, A. F., Colbeck, C. L., Bjorklund, S. A., & Parente, J. M. (2001). Racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom: Does it promote student learning? Journal of Higher Education, 72(5), 509-531.  

34.  In this book I focus on women, first-generation college students, low-income students, and students of color. I recognize many distinguish between underrepresented minority groups (e.g., African American, Latino, and Native American) and students of color (which can include Asian Americans or international students). I also recognize that not all underrepresented groups or students of color shared lived experiences within or across groups.

35.  Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring college students: A critical review of the literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50(6), 525-545.

36.  Kuh, G. D. (2008). High impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter.Washington, DC: American Association for Colleges & Universities.

37.  Stolle-McAllister, K., Sto Domingo, M. R., & Carrillo, A. (2011). The Meyerhoff way: How the Meyerhoff scholarship program helps Black students succeed in the sciences. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20(1), 5-16.