Peer mentoring for STEM students
Students say a peer mentoring program linking Glasshouse Christian College (GCC) with a local university has helped make science learning more relevant to the real world.
The program, a collaboration between the Queensland school and the University of the Sunshine Coast, involved PhD student Alyce Taylor-Brown spending three hours a week in Year 11 Chemistry and Year 12 Biology classes, starting in 2014 and continuing this year.
The program’s primary objectives were to increase student interest in and enthusiasm for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through role modeling and to create an action-research philosophy that guides teacher and student collaboration and incorporates measureable outcomes.
Research suggests role models who represent the diversity of the population are important, particularly for breaking down stereotypes (Edwards, 2014). This is particularly important in STEM fields where girls are underrepresented in STEM careers.
Staff at GCC decided to use peer mentoring at the school to provide a positive role model for the students, especially the girls. The participation of a mentor in classes also encourages best practice from the teacher and supports students to do Extended Experimental Investigations (EEIs) or Extended Response Tasks (ERTs).
EEIs involve answering an open-ended practical research question, which may include laboratory-based or fieldwork experiments. The focus is on planning and problem solving using primary data generated through experimentation by the student. ERTs involve answering questions or issues, raised within a science context that is essentially non-experimental. The focus is on using secondary data. The peer mentor provided regular small group and one to one support for students undertaking these tasks.
The potential benefits of peer mentoring are numerous (for all parties involved). Female peer mentors in particular can be very effective in changing girls’ perceptions of science and thus raising their aspirations concerning future studies in STEM areas (McDonald, 2011). Other benefits include providing a real-life link to science for the students (Karcher, 2005), providing knowledgeable assistance to the teacher (McDonald, 2011) and enriching the university experience for the mentor (Barnett, 2008).
These potential benefits led GCC science teachers to conduct school-based action research on the question: How successful is a peer mentoring program at supporting learning, classroom relationships and future study in STEM fields?
The action research - the impact on students
Five Year 11 Chemistry students and 15 Year 12 Biology students answered a questionnaire about the success of the approach.
Student responses were positive in relation to the importance of support from the teacher, from the mentor and having their work based in life-like contexts. The life-like contexts were provided by developing their own questions in EEIs and ERTs and having the peer mentor support them to answer their questions using contemporary knowledge and processes.
Teacher support was rated the highest contributing beneficial factor in determining the quality of the students’ EEI and ERT, with an overall average rating of four on a scale of one to five (five representing ‘to a great extent’). These results appear to confirm the important role the teacher plays in the classroom.
The data also indicate that males were more concerned with the task being based in a life-like context (a rating of 4) than females (3.5). The teacher supported this by stating in his interview that the peer mentor had enabled stronger real-life relevance for the students in the development and response to student-devised research questions.
Students’ involvement in the EEI/ERT with the support of a mentor improved their understanding of the topic (a rating of 4) and their perceived relationship with their teacher (3) and the mentor (3).
The results of the questionnaire were not conclusively positive overall. Answers specifically relating to the role of the peer mentor had an average rating of little more than a ‘neutral’ response.
What about the benefits for the teacher?
When the teacher was interviewed about the success of the peer mentoring program at the school he described how ‘having a peer mentor in the classroom has made it a lot easier for me to make Chemistry and Biology more relevant to the real world’.
He added the program allowed him to critically reflect on his practice and think about appropriate assessment, practical tasks and how he questioned the students.
‘As a teacher I have found that having a peer mentor has encouraged me to strive to achieve best practice in all aspects of my teaching, from lesson delivery to assessment development’.
Student desire to go into STEM fields
Interestingly, according to the survey, the peer mentoring program had no positive impact on student desire to do further study in STEM or work in a STEM career. One possible explanation for this discrepancy could be as a result of a limitation of the questionnaire. Asking students if the peer mentor influenced them to consider a STEM field trajectory will get a negative response if they are already on a STEM trajectory.
It is likely that students involved in the peer mentoring program had already decided the study or career path they are taking as they were enrolled in a senior science course. In the future, we would recommend asking students if they're planning to do further study in a STEM field or work in a STEM career and, if there answer is yes, what influence the peer mentoring program had on their decision.
Plans for the future
When asked about possible improvements to the program, students’ suggestions centered on more organisation of the task and having more mentors that visited more frequently and supported them in other subjects.
It is feasible that the peer mentoring program could be further expanded across other subject areas at GCC in the future, however it may be problematic to expect the peer mentors to assist more regularly in designated classes as they are volunteers and do have other responsibilities elsewhere, particularly with research at the university.
Overall, students would like to see peer mentoring programs enhanced and expanded at the school as they have a positive impact on learning and relationships in the classroom.
Funding for this project was from the Commonwealth Government’s Student First Support Funding. Glasshouse Christian College accessed this funding through an action research project called STEM X Centres with Independent Schools Queensland in 2014.
Barnett, J. (2008). Mentoring, boundaries, and multiple relationships: Opportunities and challenges. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnerships in Learning, 16(1), 3-16.
Edwards, D, et al., (2014). Focus Group for Informing AWPA’s Engineering Workforce Study. ACER, Final Report May 20.
Karcher, M.J. (2005). The effects of developmental mentoring and high school mentors’ attendance on their younger mentees’ self-esteem, social skills, and connectedness. Psychology in the Schools, 42(1), 65-77.
McDonald, J. (2004). University mentors help school students get In2Science. Teacher: The national Education Magazine. November: 49.
An example of the work produced by a Year 11 Chemistry student who was peer mentored can be found at http://coochincreekwater.weebly.com/