While university and college courses provide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students with the knowledge and skills they need to secure jobs when they graduate, it’s mentorship that often enriches their learning experience and sets them on a path to success.
Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, a national charitable organization and presenting partner of Canada 2067, a 50-year program to promote learning in STEM, says her entire career is the result of strong mentorship from both men and women.
“I formally launched Let’s Talk Science in 1993 upon completion of my PhD studies and then learned about management, fundraising, strategy, government relations, the importance of the charitable sector and more from mentors,” she says.
“Several early mentors were a generation older than me; they were leaders in their fields and saw even more potential in my work than I did. Remember, STEM wasn’t actually ‘a thing’ at the time.”
Dr. Schmidt describes her mentors as people who were “humble and wise” and who had very high expectations of her.
“They willingly gave their time, but it became clear early on that I needed to come to our discussions well prepared. They rarely told me what to do, but instead helped me frame my challenges in ways that allowed me to come up with solutions. They always supported me – even if they didn’t agree with my decision,” she says.
And what Dr. Schmidt gained from her mentors she now passes on to mentees who turn to her for guidance.
“Many people have reached out to discuss how to align their STEM training with careers outside research and how to kick off or grow their business ventures,” she says. “I love seeing the passion and drive of these emerging entrepreneurs. In one situation, I was so impressed during our first conversation that I challenged the young woman to write a short proposal about how she could help Let’s Talk Science. She subsequently completed her project with us, thereby launching her own company.”
While STEM-based jobs have historically been filled mainly by men, an increasing number of women are choosing careers in fields such as engineering and science, and that needs to continue, says Dr. Schmidt.
“It’s critical for industry, non-profits, government and education sectors to showcase inspiring women in a variety of roles,” she says. “Connecting youth with meaningful role models shows them that rewarding jobs are attainable in all fields, regardless of gender.”
Doug Dokis, director of the Indigenous Youth in STEM (InSTEM) program at Actua, a national charity preparing youth age six to 26 to be innovators and leaders by engaging them in exciting and accessible STEM experiences that build critical employability skills and confidence, believes mentorship should not be seen as a program with a start and a finish, but rather as an ongoing organic process.
“That means cultivating new mentors right from the time they start being mentored, the idea being that they eventually will become mentors themselves, moving from mentee to mentor and then to employment,” he says.
It has to be an ongoing trusting relationship where the youth see themselves being in the place of that mentor, that they actually feel and see that they too can achieve those goals.— Doug Dokis, director of the Indigenous Youth in STEM (InSTEM) program at Actua
Actua works with Indigenous youth within its land-based programming to develop mentorship and leadership capacity. Participants are mentored by Indigenous university students who are, in turn, mentored by Actua mentors.
Mr. Dokis believes commitment and dedication are the main qualities of a good mentor, which is why he says one-off mentoring programs don’t always work.
“It has to be an ongoing trusting relationship where the youth see themselves being in the place of that mentor, that they actually feel and see that they too can achieve those goals. Particularly with indigenous youth, they need to see the pathways that are potentially possible for them,” he adds.
While there’s a general perception that mentors are either teachers or co-workers, Mr. Dokis and Dr. Schmidt both agree that family plays an equally important role.
“Family is critical for building confidence, resiliency and self-esteem,” says Dr. Schmidt. “The early years are especially important for fostering these key characteristics. Modelling curiosity, a joy for learning, especially during times of perceived failure, and persistence in solving problems, will do more to support youth than anything money can buy. Mentors come in and out of our lives while families can offer lifelong support.”
Mr. Dokis says family plays a “huge role” in supporting the work of a mentor by recognizing the opportunities for success, engaging in the mentorship and encouraging the mentees to strive to achieve their goals.
For Indigenous youth in particular, mentors need to demonstrate that there are opportunities for success even though these youth feel that they don’t fit in to an academic environment, says Mr. Dokis.
“For example, in our land-based learning program, everybody contributes at an equal level regardless of what their academic skills and standing. That’s a starting point for youth to feel that they too can achieve success – particularly in STEM – by seeing the relationship between their Indigenous knowledges and STEM,” he says.
As part of an initiative to engage more Indigenous youth in STEM and improve high school graduation rates for Indigenous youth, 80 First Nations high school students recently attended a career day in Edmonton where they explored how STEM is tied to Traditional Knowledge and can be applied to solve problems within their own communities.
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