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New Directions Meeting at AAAS Addresses Culturally Responsive Mentorship

Despite progress in bringing underrepresented groups into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, much more must be done to strengthen mentoring programs and find new ways to put students on the path to STEM careers, speakers said at a recent event organized by AAAS.  

Rush Holt at New Directions STEM Mentoring Meeting


Rush Holt speaking at the New Directions meeting at AAAS. | Michael Colella

“Over the past decades, STEM educational diversity programs and mentoring have made a very big positive difference,” said AAAS CEO Rush Holt. “But I don’t think I need to ask for a show of hands if anybody thinks that progress has been satisfactory or sufficient. It’s been slow and we have to do better.”

Holt spoke at a meeting on “New Directions for Inclusive STEM Education and Career Mentoring.” He called for further efforts to “change the face of STEM” and noted AAAS’s long-standing commitment to increasing diversity in STEM fields. He commended the National Science Foundation’s new INCLUDES program as a positive step toward more diversity in such fields. The NSF program seeks to enhance U.S. leadership in science and technology while increasing participation by underrepresented groups, including women, members of racial and ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with low socio-economic status.

The AAAS meeting on 20-22 April was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) and the 25th anniversary of the AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, both of which honor individuals who demonstrate leadership and excellence in mentoring and increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields and careers.

The meeting, organized by AAAS and its Education and Human Resources department, brought together recipients of both awards and professionals in the field. It concluded with a series of four panels that discussed issues such as why STEM mentoring is critical, best practices for STEM mentoring, how to build STEM workforce skills, and available resources for STEM mentors.

Panelists at the New Directions AAAS STEM Mentoring Meeting


Left to right: Moderator Carol Muller from Stanford WISE Ventures, Shara Fisler from Ocean Discovery Institue, Karen Panetta from Tufts University, and James Lewis from the National Science Foundation | Michael Colella

“You want people to be mentors, not tormentors,” said Maria Elena-Zavala, professor in the Department of Biology at California State University Northridge and associate director at the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). “We need strong advocates in leadership positions to actually help change the face of science. If you don’t have strong leaders, then we won’t be able to scale up and we’ll still be marginalized.”

According to Elena-Zavala, no scientist becomes a scientist overnight and it's important for mentoring programs to be flexible and recognize how students respond to various challenges as they progress.

Karen Panetta, associate dean for graduate education at Tufts University, stressed the need to shift the conversation from addressing structural challenges in the “educational pipeline” to finding solutions towards “educational pathways”—meaning that not all students will complete their education by simply following one specific route.

For example, Panetta said, STEM programs that don’t require students to declare a major or enter a college of science or engineering when they first enroll seem to have a much higher proportion of underrepresented students, particularly women. When such students are allowed to explore a variety of subjects, she said, they often end up as STEM majors.   

Christine Pfund, director of NRMN, stressed the importance of culturally responsive mentorship that acknowledges personal cultural identity and worldviews and uses cultural data as a resource to mentor more effectively.

“There are roadblocks, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today if the road to the STEM workforce wasn’t littered with blockades, unfortunately,” said Shara Fisler of the nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute, which helps and encourages kids from disadvantaged communities to discover science.

Fisler, who was selected a “CNN Hero” for her work, said it is critical to get a better understanding of how the best mentors are able to spark an interest in science among their young charges, and how that spark can be kept lit through rigorous experiences as they progress in their studies through college and beyond.

Shara Fisler as featured on CNN. | CNN

Elena-Zavala said mentors also must be aware of bias in the larger society and in their own experiences. “There’s also all of the things an individual has to overcome with bias,” she said, “because biases do exist—we all have biases. But we have to ensure that we don’t let those biases determine how we limit people.”

Aside from the influence mentors have in allowing students to fall in love and pursue careers in science and engineering, panelists also addressed the influence mentees have on their mentors. The cultural experience is one that goes both ways, they said, and benefits everyone in the end.

AAAS remains committed not just to its mentor award programs, Holt said, but also “to doing anything we can to recognize and provide resources for individuals who mentor and guide. We are determined to make sure that all STEM workplaces and education institutions are places where women, minorities, and persons with disabilities can succeed and thrive.”