It is a well-known fact: The percentage of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and careers is disproportionate to the amount of men in those same fields. As jobs in the 21st century become more technologically based, it is imperative that capable creative minds from diverse backgrounds integrate themselves into these STEM arenas. From leaders in government and industry who understand the critical shortage of STEM workers (especially females) on the far end of the pipeline to educators of all levels on the near end of the pipeline, there needs to be a concerted effort to bridge the gap between these two seminal points. Enter the STEM Mentoring Café, a unique pilot program in Washington, DC, the brainchild of AnneMarie Horowitz of the Department of Energy and Camsie McAdams of the Department of Education.
The mentoring event, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, took place on May 19, 2014 from 4:30pm-6:00pm. Thirty female STEM professionals from 16 different government agencies arrived with their “tools of their trade”, ready to interact with eighteen (18) teachers and thirty-eight (38) 5th-8th grade students to share their passion for their STEM careers. The participants assimilated quickly to the “speed-dating” format, with STEM professionals moving from table to table during the five rounds of 10-minute intervals, enabling students and teachers to ask questions and learn about STEM professions during each roundtable discussion.
As a facilitator, I watched the students engage and listened to their well-versed questions from “What is the favorite part of your job?” showing distinct interest in how the professional connected to her job, to “How does that work?’’ exuding excitement and curiosity in the science and engineering aspect of the profession. At each “mini-interview”, the students carefully recorded the mentor’s name, job, cool facts and additional notes in their STEM Mentoring Notebook provided at the event. The collective “vibe” in the room was palpable; the symbiotic relationship of mentors describing what they love to do in their work-life with students' searching for the jobs that synced with their passions and interests created an incredible buzz—full of smiles and fun throughout. By the end of the event, many of these young women had found their voices and were happy to share their favorite part of the day with the group.
It was a fantastic event in and of itself, and there’s even more. Research shows that female student’s self-concept plays an integral role in choosing a career path. In addition, the more students identify with same-sex experts the more likely they will be to pursue a STEM career. So not only did the STEM professionals attend the event and personally meet the students, they also committed to follow-up mentoring sessions with the teachers and students in the coming school year.
Reluctance to leave an event is typically an indicator of success. That was certainly the case at the STEM Mentoring Event! Students gathered their certificates and slowly made their way to the exits with their teachers, sometimes stopping to chat with their new friends whether a STEM professional or a peer. As the teachers and students left the auditorium, they were given a collection of educational resources from many of the agencies. As the lights dimmed and the last of the guests departed, it was readily apparent that something had changed in the last two hours. It was quiet now but the echoes of the sounds remained, the delightful cadence of bridges being forged and the hope of what would come.