STEM Interest Declines, Mentorship Revamps Interest

The decline of interest in STEM fields could have long-lasting effects in future developments in American society as well as American industries. Engineer Caitlin Kalinowski explains the importance of mentorships for growing interest in the field.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — The COVID-19 pandemic caused a decline in college enrollment numbers, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM). A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study shows that college enrollment in physical science programs dropped by 7.6%, math and statistics saw a decline of 2.5% and engineering reported a decline of 3.5%.(1)

In parallel, we know that girls progress through high school, their interest in STEM dwindles. Sixty percent of girls interested in STEM as ninth graders will not stay on that career path by high school graduation.(2) In addition, Black and Hispanic students leave their STEM major in college at a higher rate than white students—37% of Hispanic students leave STEM degrees, 40% for students of color and 29% of white students.(3) One of the reasons behind this decline, according to product engineer Caitlin Kalinowski, is a lack of mentoring and guidance within STEM fields of study.

“Mentorships are integral to increasing minority interest and ensuring success. Many of the disparities we see with women and minorities in STEM come from waning interest over time, or concerns about getting involved in unknown academic arenas. Official mentoring programs are important, but more important is making a connection with someone and using that to drive the mentoring relationship,” Kalinowski explains.

Kalinowski believes that there are millions of brilliant minds not getting the attention and guidance they deserve. So much of our future depends on a diverse and thriving population of STEM academics and private-sector employees who can help solve the future’s hardest problems, she believes. In order to better serve these groups (women, minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other underrepresented groups), we need to provide mentors who look like them—who are also part of these groups. As individuals, we tend to thrive best when we have access to role models who are akin to us, she says. Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Communications Officer Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek” was instrumental in influencing young women—particularly women of color—in joining NASA and seeking STEM careers.(4)

The Importance of Mentoring

“Mentoring is a big issue because there’s a lot of things that we don’t formally teach about being in a STEM career in school or in your job training. What you learn in school is one thing, but what you learn in your job is a whole different matter. It’s hard to buy a book and learn how to build your career,” says Kalinowski.

Companies need to develop official mentoring programs, Kalinowski advises. However, it’s not just about pairing like-minded individuals. It’s about offering someone who has context. Often, that person will lead the mentee to understand projects better, and even describe a different way of looking at things, since they may have a higher degree of visibility across the whole organization. Plus, the mentors can use their network to make introductions that are vital to the young person’s development.

The key, she says, is making sure the mentors themselves are motivated. Often that has to do with finding the right people and getting the right levels of commitment. The goals have to be clearly defined. Equally as important is that the relationship must be bidirectional. The days of a lecturing mentor with a “do-as-I-say” attitude no longer works.

“Underrepresented groups in STEM want a mentor who will see the relationship as a two-way street, where the mentor can learn from the mentee just as much. There has to be an exchange of ideas and there have to be many questions asked from both sides,” Kalinowski says. “The unidirectional, old-school way of looking at things is dated and stale. The mentor needs to feel that he or she is also getting something out of this. Both will grow and that benefits the organization and society as well.”

Keys to a Successful Mentoring Program

● Have clear and defined goals and expectations.

● Mentors have to be willing to listen, not just speak.

● There needs to be a vetting process to ensure both mentors and mentee share the same goals and the same vision.

● The company has the obligation to institute official mentoring programs, but it also needs to encourage employees to seek out a mentor on their own. And once that happens, it is vital that the employer support the initiative with enough resources.

● Companies should not underestimate the value of apprenticeship programs.

Academia and the American labor force know that any decline in STEM students will affect all aspects of future society, explains Kalinowski. The fewer scientists, tech experts, engineers and mathematicians who graduate the bigger the detrimental impact on the future development of America at all levels. Society needs to continually move forward and the more contributions future women, minorities, members of the LGBQT+ community and other underrepresented groups can bring to STEM, the better the societal outcome.

The solution is simple, says Kalinowski. There needs to be more visibility and more accessibility to role models and mentoring programs to foster interest and thus, the advancement of STEM fields. To not do so wastes millions of fresh, young minds eager for a chance.

“I love being able to help people see things in new ways and gain new perspectives on themselves and their careers. In our one-on-one meetings we discuss their challenges, share ideas, and look at things from different points of view. These conversations, in addition to just getting to know one another better, are the aspects of mentoring that I most enjoy,” says Kalinowski.