STEM Mentoring: A Personal Story

Taken from the Wichita State University K-12 Newsletter, February 2015
By Polly Basore, Strategic Communications & K12 Outreach Officer, WSU College of Engineering

My son at age 7 with his favorite birthday gift, a set of college science lectures on DVD. He needed a STEM mentor but never found one.

My son at age 7 with his favorite birthday gift, a set of college science lectures on DVD. He needed a STEM mentor but never found one.

My son was 4-years-old when he started asking questions about science that I couldn’t answer. My own father had been an electrical engineering professor with a seemingly endless breadth and depth of science and math knowledge. But my father who had always answered all my questions had just died.

My son asked me to explain the blood brain barrier. He heard about it at an exhibit at Exploration Place.  He asked me to explain the difference between DNA and RNA. How did the batteries that propelled the cars in his Hot Wheel track work? I kept up as best I could, looking things up, supplying him with books and eventually, teaching him to use Wikipedia. For his seventh birthday, I gave him a set of college science lectures on DVD. It was his favorite present. When he watched them, his questions only got harder.

I did the best I could, trying to feed him information, but I knew I was in over my head. What I needed was someone like my father who really knew this stuff, who could supply answers as fast as my son could spit out questions.

I started calling around, looking for someone who might mentor him. I tried for years, but I never found anyone interested. There was simply no place to go with a request like mine, and no culture among STEM professionals that this was something people did.

Distant family sent well-intentioned gifts. There was the hand-me-down LEGO Mindstorms kit – a build-it-yourself robot programmed with a computer. My son looked to me to explain how to use it, and when I couldn’t – and couldn’t find anyone else who could either – I shoved it under his bed. Then came the Snap Circuit kit. When it over-heated the first time we tried it, I worried about fire and stuck it on a shelf.

I was grateful when his elementary school formed an Odyssey of the Mind team and he got a chance to work with parents who could invent and build things. I was thrilled when I discovered (years before I worked here) that Wichita State’s College of Engineering hosted “Switched on Saturday” workshops where engineering students led kids in hands-on science activities.

But I could never find my son what I thought he really needed – a mentor. Someone who could answer his questions, nurture his interests and push him to develop his talent in science and math.

By the time he reached high school, my son got into sports. He joined the cross country, swim and track teams. His coaches were incredible. They took his drive and talent and developed and pushed him, day after day, 20 hours a week. My geeky kid who I had never expected to take to athletics, lettered in three sports and went to state three times. By the time he was 16, he could swim two miles and run 18.

I watched this and couldn’t help but wonder, what if I’d ever found him a “coach” in math or science?

I’m telling you this story for a couple of reasons:

First, things are different now. In 2014, Wichita came together to establish a citywide partnership called STEMpact2020 with a mission of finding STEM professionals and connecting them with kids as mentors and role models. Wichita has built the infrastructure that can bring the right volunteers together with the kids whose lives they can change.

Second, I think you might be one of those people we need most. We have noticed those most likely to enroll their children in our K-12 Outreach programs are parents who are educators and/or STEM professionals themselves. So we don’t have to tell you what a difference it makes to give children opportunities to develop their STEM interests. You already know!

But have you thought about what difference you could make for somebody else’s child? I’m asking you to think about it now and go to the STEMpact2020 website and register as a STEM professional volunteer.

By registering, you won’t be committing to anything just yet – just putting your name on a list of potential volunteers, letting us know your areas of expertise, ages of kids you like to work with, and the types of volunteer settings and projects you would enjoy. That way, if something comes along that looks like a match, the folks at STEMpact2020 can get in touch, and you can say yes or no.

I’m appealing to you as a parent of a child who needed a STEM mentor and never found one, and as someone committed to helping develop your children’s interest in STEM. Won’t you help, too?

Learn More about STEMpact2020

Visit STEMpact2020.org to learn more about Wichita’s citywide effort to engage STEM professionals in mentoring youth. This is the place to learn about the mission, register yourself as a potential volunteer, sign up for a specific opportunity and seek volunteers. For more information, contact Alex Petersen, STEMpact2020 project coordinator.

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