Stephanie Ramos and Daniel López-Cevallos, STEM Leaders Program, Oregon State University (IUSE Award #1432810)
The STEM Leaders Program at Oregon State provides research and mentorship opportunities that support students often underrepresented in STEM (first-generation, students of color, Pell-eligible, and/or women in engineering). When COVID-19 caused a sudden shift to online activities, the STEM Leaders program surveyed their 2020-21 cohort of students to see how they were adjusting after their first academic term. A majority of students reported feeling disconnected from their peers and coursework due to the virtual learning environment.
Responding to Student Needs to Create Connections Among Peers
- STEM Buddy System: This system matches cohort students with each other, so students are connected with someone who is going through the same program and courses. The STEM Buddy System provides another layer of support, so students feel a sense of belonging in their discipline. This program augments an existing Peer Mentoring component of the program, that matches students with trained upper-division students that have experience in undergraduate STEM fields.
“I really liked how the connection wasn’t forced and there weren’t any events or activities we had to do together. I was able to meet up with my buddy and just talk and it felt like a real connection” -Student in the STEM Buddy Program
- Social Events: Instead of hosting academic workshops for students, the program turned one of the workshops into a social event (via Zoom). Campus partners and previous students hosted breakout room sessions and students were able to connect while discussing undergraduate research, career opportunities, and other academic and social well-being resources.
“My favorite workshop this year was when our college representative came and told us about specific resources and programs my college offered. I was able to get an internship for the summer because of this!… I enjoyed the social workshops and being able to choose which breakout room so that I could attend talks that were meaningful to me. The format we had this year was great given the circumstances and I can’t wait until we are able to all meet in-person.” – 2020 STEM Leader Student
“STEM Leaders helped me build professional relationships with professors at OSU. Without introduction to research during my first year I don’t think I would’ve been as involved on campus and had enough experience to get the job I have now.” -2019 STEM Leader Graduate
Implications Beyond the Pandemic
Students in STEM fields are craving meaningful connections but are having a difficult time making them happen on their own. Based on the STEM Leaders Program’s experience, here are some steps towards creating a successful mentorship program at other colleges/universities:
- Securing buy-in across STEM colleges, departments, and units.
- Engaging campus leaders committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
- Reducing barriers for students to schedule brief check-ins with program coordinators or STEM faculty.
- Increasing flexibility so that students can choose an in-person or online experience for the fall research-ready course.
- Focusing on student professional development that will set them up for success beyond the program.
- Monitoring and evaluating our efforts for program improvement and sustainability beyond grant-funded cycles.