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STEM Mentoring Can Provide Exposure, Inspiration for Range of Careers

Schools or community-based organizations looking for reasons to promote mentoring programs need look no further than Barrington Irving for inspiration.

An immigrant from Jamaica who grew up in Miami, Irving thought the ticket out of his tough neighborhood was playing football. But at age 15, Irving met Gary Robinson, an African American pilot who asked if Irving had ever thought about being a pilot.

"I didn't' think I was smart enough," said Irving, at a STEM education conference last week in Washington, sponsored by U.S. News & World Report.

That encounter, which included playing with the buttons in the cockpit,  prompted Irving to think differently about the possibilities for his future and changed the trajectory of his life.

"I took an interest in aviation and turned it into passion," Irving told the audience, which included many teachers interested in learning how to integrate professionals into their science and math classrooms.

Irving turned down a football scholarship to the University of Florida and instead studied aeronautical science at Florida Memorial University on a U.S. Air Force ROTC scholarship. In 2007 at age 23, Irving set a world record as the first African American and the youngest pilot to fly around the world solo.

Now, Irving wants to inspire other young people to consider STEM careers through his organization, Experience Aviation.

"With education and STEM outreach, sometimes we lose our way in how we engage students," said Irving. Working side-by-side with industry, he challenges students to set and fulfill "audacious goals," such as building an airplane from scratch. Often, a real project, high expectations, and a caring mentor can make all the difference, he said.

Mentors in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are particularly needed because many teachers don't have STEM degrees, said Irving.

"We can't depend on teachers to carry that entire burden," he said.

A Powerful Tool

Research shows mentoring can be a powerful tool in keeping students on track in school, yet one-in-three young people have never had an adult mentor of any kind growing up, according to a report earlier this year by the National Mentoring Partnership.

Dara Richardson-Heron, the chief executive officer of the YMCA USA, cited that study in her remarks at the STEM mentoring panel on April 23. "When you don't have people telling you that you can achieve, it can be challenging," she said.

The YWCA's "TechGYRLS" after-school program tries to address the gender gap of interest in STEM said Richardson-Heron, who is also a physician. Outside of medicine, too often girls aren't aware of the range of career opportunities in science and technology, from robotics to coding, she said.

The aim of the program is to inspire girls and give them confidence to pursue STEM studies, particularly if they aren't encouraged at home, said Richardson-Heron. Just 23 percent of workers in STEM fields today are women, and African-American women are especially underrepresented.

Citizen Schools is another enterprise that works to introduce students to caring adults, relevant learning experiences through after-school programs, and apprenticeships.

Eric Schwartz, the cofounder and CEO of the Boston-based organization, said students first need to be inspired before they can develop grit and achieve academically.

"Education is about mimicking," he said at the STEM event. "We have to build off what we see."

Schwartz noted that there is great inequity in college-completion rates than ever before, which he traces not to the inequity in schools, but the edge that upper-income kids have from summer camps, tutoring, and extra-curricular activities. "Every kid needs moments of discovery. They have to have exposure," he said. "The drivers of learning are experience and relationships."

Last week, the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago announced it is expanding its peer-mentoring program to provide extended support for its alumni in college, most of whom are first generation college-going students. Juniors and seniors will be trained as mentors and paired with incoming freshmen at campuses of the Associated Colleges of Illinois in the fall.

In the first two years of the pilot program, 98 percent of students who were mentored returned for their second year in college, according to a press release from the organization.

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