When university students first sign up to be In2science mentors, they are often driven by a passion to pass on their enthusiasm for STEM to secondary students. But it takes a lot more than enthusiasm to be fully prepared to step back into the classroom and make a genuine connection with year 8 and 9 students. In2science coordinators train and support mentors for the ten weeks of placement to ensure they leave a lasting impression on their mentees.
Before mentors step into a classroom, they undertake a five hour training session led by an In2science coordinator from each of the four partner universities. This pre-placement training prepares them for their role in the classroom. Mentors learn about the current trend in Australia of declining engagement of students in VCE STEM studies and the low university enrolments by students from low socio-economic areas that In2science seeks to addresses.
Mentors are taken through what their role in the classroom does and doesn’t involve, for example, they are not disciplinarians, but they are there to help students engage. They are given practical strategies and communication tips to understand students’ needs and help students to see the relevance of science and maths to their own lives. There are many interactive tasks that enable mentors to start putting these ideas/strategies into practise, such as demonstrating and explaining a simple scientific concept to a Year 8 or 9 level audience. They also workshop ways to introduce themselves to the class, to explain their role as In2science mentors, and to share their own experiences of studying STEM. In the past, many secondary students have engaged much more readily with their mentor when they realised the mentor was not actually a teacher. New mentors also hear the experiences of prior mentors and ask questions for a better understanding of the realities of the classroom as well as hearing about challenges and successes.
For eMentors involved in online mentoring of regional students, there is an additional training session conducted via the same online video platform that they will use to connect with the students. They are given strategies for establishing a rapport with the students, overcoming some of the communication barriers inherent in the online format. eMentors are also shown through a range of resources that they can use throughout their placement to give sessions structure and clear objectives.
Once mentors have made their first few visits to their year 8 or 9 maths or science class, the coordinators from each university will visit each mentor to see how they are working with the students and the teacher. This is a good opportunity for the coordinators to see first-hand the makeup of the class and to meet the students the mentor is working with, in order to offer specific advice about how the mentor can maximise their impact with the students. The coordinator can also speak to the students to find out how they are benefiting from having a mentor, and to help emphasise the mentor’s role in the students’ minds.
In the case of eMentors, who have weekly sessions with the same two or three students ranging from year 7 to year 12, the eMentoring coordinator can join in on the session to observe the interaction, and offer the mentor advice after the session.
Mid-placement training is an opportunity for mentors to meet halfway through the semester to share stories from the classroom and learn from each others’ challenges and successes. The coordinators facilitate the mentors to reflect on the experience they have had with their mentees so far and help them frame some goals that they would like to achieve in the remaining weeks of placement. Past experience has shown that students’ perceptions of the relevance to science and maths to the real world increases when the mentors give a presentation to the class, so extra guidance and ideas are also provided to help mentors plan a presentation toward the end of their placements.
End of placement career skills PD
After the ten weeks of placement are over, and mentors have finished university exams, they are treated to a morning tea to thank them for their efforts. They are given a workshop that encourages them to reflect on their achievements during placement and translate the skills they have developed, such as communication and problem solving, into experience they can demonstrate to future employers. The mentors practice answering part of a job application citing experience they have gained from mentoring.
Volunteering as an In2science mentor is a great experience with just as many benefits for the mentors as there are for their mentees.