Mentoring Philosophy

Mentoring non-science students to conduct and disseminate STEM & STEM-education undergraduate research to increase content knowledge, skill sets, and the overall scientific literacy of our citizenry.

Faced with the challenge of composing a mentoring statement, I took the approach my students might start with– I googled the word “mentor.” Immediately, the Wikipedia definition came up on my screen:

Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person …  “Mentoring” is a process that always involves communication and is relationship based, but its precise definition is elusive [1].

Although I do everything to steer my students away from using Wikipedia as a primary source, I feel this definition provides interesting pieces for a discussion on mentoring.

In order to frame my philosophy and approach towards mentoring, I must define and describe my institution and student population. I am a faculty member at Penn State Brandywine, a non-residential campus whose primary mission is to serve as a 2+2 feeder school in the Penn State System. The commuting student population is 57% male and 43% female, out of a total of 1,457 enrolled students [2].  Of the degree-seeking students, ranging from first-generation to returning adult students, 65% are in their freshman or sophomore year. For the students pursuing STEM majors (except for Biology and General Engineering), they must transfer to another campus after the first two years to complete their junior- and senior-year coursework.

I am the only faculty member in the discipline of Earth science at Penn State Brandywine and teach introductory-level Earth science/geoscience/geography courses for non-science majors to satisfy general education requirements towards graduation. With no junior- and senior-level STEM students on campus and only a handful of Earth science majors each year, I have designed an approach to mentor freshmen and sophomore non-STEM majors in STEM projects utilizing undergraduate research as the tool for engagement and learning. For the purposes of this narrative, I refer to definition of undergraduate research as defined by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR): Undergraduate research is an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student in collaboration with a faculty mentor that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline [3]. All forms of undergraduate research are characterized by unifying features, starting with mentorship and including originality, acceptability, and dissemination [4].

Why mentor non-STEM majors? Introducing students majoring in the arts & humanities or social sciences to not only learn about science but to actually get hands-on and do science is a critical component of increasing their own content knowledge and skill sets. These students may not be future scientists, but they are citizens that will be hearing about scientific stories on the news, and they will be voting on scientific issues. By mentoring non-STEM majors, I can help increase their scientific literacy and ability to communicate about science that will serve them in their future.

Why mentor female students in STEM? Interestingly, I did not set out intentionally to mentor just female students. I open the invitation to all students that demonstrate an interest in completing a research project. Despite a consistent higher enrollment of male students at Penn State Brandywine, 78% of the students I have mentored have been female. I am extremely pleased that female, non-science majors are comfortable working with me and are willing to develop content, skills, and be shown the relevance and applicability of their work to their lives and the community.

Why undergraduate research? Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) promotes undergraduate research as a 21st century pedagogy [5], that engaging students in research not only enhances contributions to the discipline but can significantly add to student learning. CUR has published a continuum of undergraduate research [6], where I define my mentoring practices along the continuum as student/process centered, student initiated, open to all students (not just honors students), original to the student, and for a range of audiences. My top priority is to give students ownership of a project, not to have them do my research but their own project with consistent encouragement, communication, and clarity with the process and not the final outcome being most critical while conducting the research. I feel strongly that there is no reason for students to wait until the senior year to begin undergraduate research – engaging students at the beginning of their college careers provides a solid and valuable foundation for further learning and development in the upperclass years and can open more doors for more opportunities.

Undergraduate research is a challenge with students in their first two years of college, especially with a commuting student population. The AGU URECAS Report [7] agrees with what I have seen in my own students, such as a perception of research being hard, and having no time to do research because of family and work obligations. Organizations such as MentorNet (http://www.mentornet.net/) operate as a technology-supported mentoring network and serves as a model for me to use online technologies to mentor my students. I found that using online tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Diigo, and Twitter, have been very effective in maintaining communication with my students for frequent mentoring sessions, especially for those that live quite a distance from campus.

What are my strategies/success of mentoring? I work with lower-division non-STEM majors by scaffolding not only their content knowledge and skills but their confidence to engage in the work. I have worked with students that started with a very slim interest in science to then be able to complete semester- or summer-based research projects that are science or science education based. My students have contributed to the science and/or outreach mission of community partners. I allow students to design and develop their own independent research projects to maintain complete ownership of the project and be responsible for seeing the project through to completion. I have students present at conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals. These are skills essential to the development of any student, no matter what major they pursue.

As with many undergraduate research projects, it is difficult to fit a project into a one-semester schedule. More often than not, the projects are not completed at the end of the semester and/or not completed before the student transfers to another institution at the end of the sophomore year. I do not stop working with students once they become upperclassmen. I maintain connections with students once they transfer campus/institutions, and at times have mentored students on projects entirely through the use of online technology for communications, sharing of data, and drafts of presentations and manuscripts. I strongly feel that mentoring does not stop because the semester ends and/or the student leaves campus.

If we return to the Wikipedia definition of mentoring, the first phrase that stands out to me is “personal developmental relationship.” Although we like to think of working relationships in higher education as professional, it is critical to keep in mind the individual student and his/her personal interests and challenges. Yes, there needs to be the faculty-student boundaries established, but mentoring can blur these boundaries, for we need to get to know students beyond the grades they receive on assignments to best foster their development. I believe this last point ties in nicely with the Wikipedia phrase “its precise definition is elusive.” Although I can define a mentoring approach, each student I work with is unique.  I cannot apply a standard definition to any of the amazing students I have had the honor of mentoring. In the end, my work as a mentor does not need to light my fire or the entire discipline but have such an impact on each individual researcher that it lights his/her fire for STEM knowledge!

 

[1] Mentorship. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentorship

[2] Campus data as of July 18, 2016, from the University Budget Office Fact Book, http://budget.psu.edu/CDS/Enrollment.asp?Location=DE&AY=20152016

[3] Wenzel, T. (1997).What is Undergraduate Research? CUR Quarterly, 17: 163.

[4] Osborn, J, & Kaurkstis, K. (2009). The Benefits of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity. In: M. Boyd & J. Wessmen (Eds.), Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: DC: CUR, 41-53.

[5] PKAL – Undergraduate Research. (n.d.) Retrieved May 21, 2012, from http://www.pkal.org/documents/Vol4UndergradResearchPedagogies.cfm

[6] Beckman, M., & Hensel, N. (2009). Making Explicit the Implicit: Defining Undergraduate Research. CUR Quarterly, 29(4): 40-44.

[7] Adamec, B.H., & Asher, P.M. (April 2013). The Important Role of Two-Year Colleges in the Earth and Space Sciences. DC: American Geophysical Union. 17 pp.

 

Originally written 2013, updated 2016