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What’s the Secret to STEM Diversity? Mentorship, According to a New Study

Female mentors.
Credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash.
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Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently published a paper in Nature Communications showing that when first-year female STEM students are mentored by student peers, the positive ripple effect lasts throughout their undergraduate years and into their postgraduate lives, enhancing the mentee’s subjective experience as well as objective academic outcomes. 

“We often think of student success as something internal to some individuals—their innate drive, grit or brilliance,” says Nilanjana Dasgupta, the paper’s senior author, professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Institute of Diversity Sciences (IDS) at UMass Amherst. “But our work shows that before success comes connection between the student and others in her peer community. From high-quality peer relationships within the academic environment, especially relationships with peers who share a common identity, comes the confidence and motivation to persist, which lasts for a very long time, powering that student through her academic and early professional career.”

Dasgupta and her co-authors spent eight years, from 2011 to 2019, monitoring a total of 150 female students who majored in engineering at UMass Amherst. The team focused on engineering, because, as a discipline, it has a well-documented, lopsided lack of gender diversity, even compared to other STEM fields: only 21% of engineering majors are women, and they account for less than 13% of the engineering workforce.

Dasgupta and her colleagues then recruited 58 student-mentors who likewise were majoring in engineering—typically juniors or seniors. Just over half of the mentors—32—were women, and 26 were men. All received training in effective mentorship. The mentee-mentor pairs met an average of four times throughout each mentee’s first year, and, as Dasgupta detailed in previous research, the results were immediate and striking: female mentees with female mentors reported a much greater sense of belonging, motivation and confidence after the end of their first year.

“In this new paper, we found that first-year mentoring helped maintain female engineering students’ confidence in their skills, which drove the mentees to success later on in their college years,” says Deborah Wu, the paper’s lead author, who completed the research as part of her graduate work at UMass Amherst and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Northwestern University. Female students with female mentors not only showed more confidence, they also exhibited greater motivation, successfully secured professional internships and were more likely to complete an undergraduate degree in a STEM field compared to either female students with male mentors or female students with no mentors.

“Academic success requires forging meaningful relationships,” says Dasgupta. To help STEM students at both UMass Amherst and UMass Boston build the relationships that lead to lasting success, five professors across the two universities have teamed up with the Sloan Foundation on a $499,972 effort to change the STEM culture in the UMass system. 

That change begins with the engineering and computer science programs. “There is no better time than now to diversify the STEM community, says Daniel Haehn, professor of computer science at UMass Boston. “We must prioritize culturally aware mentoring and research in the UMass system, and this new partnership will create important opportunities for historically marginalized students at both institutions.” 

The team of five, which, in addition to Dasgupta and Haehn, includes Kim Hamad-Schifferli, professor of engineering at UMass Boston;  Shannon Roberts, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst; and Neena Thota, senior teaching faculty and associate chair for teaching development in information and computer science at UMass Amherst. They hope that more inclusive engineering and computer science programs, driven by the kind of empirical research documented in Dasgupta’s Nature Communications paper, will then become models for reform through the UMass system.

“My own academic research has shown me that there is an evidence-driven roadmap to greater diversity and inclusion in STEM,” says Dasgupta, “and my aim is to take that evidence and convert it into programs that create expanded pathways for students and reshape institutions to represent the diversity of this nation. Representational diversity contributes to better science and engineering in the public interest. The more varied the STEM students, the more likely they are to strive to solve research problems connected to social problems that are ignored in today’s science. They also may have insights into research problems that fall in others’ blind spots.”

Reference: Wu DJ, Thiem KC, Dasgupta N. Female peer mentors early in college have lasting positive impacts on female engineering students that persist beyond graduation. Nat Comms. 2022;13(1):6837. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-34508-x.

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