by Jane Healey, Ph.D.
Media outlets love to celebrate high school students who make astounding discoveries while working with labs, professors, museums and other organizations. Two 12th graders in a university lab discover a bacteria that breaks down plastic; a high school musician in a jazz pianist’s studio learns to think in a fast-paced, intense environment; an 11th grade student enters a famous science contest and concocts a simple test for pancreatic cancer.
Stories like these prompt many schools to want their students to work one-on-one with experts in the community and produce visible results. Implementing those relationships may seem as easy as calling a few friends. In reality, a mentor-based research program requires careful thought and planning. Though this is written with higher ed in mind, much of it applies to K-12 mentoring programs as well.
The Fundamentals: Are Mentor-Based Programs Successful?
There isn’t a well-known, large-scale study, yet, but research briefs suggest that students who participate in structured, long-term projects with mentors earn higher grades and have fewer occurrences of negative academic experiences than students who don’t participate. Obviously, self-selection creates a cohort, but even so, for the students working in the field with mentors, the experience may be significant enough to ignite a career.
Keep in mind the same studies insist that producing success stories means effort, resources, commitment and a clear understanding of expectations from the expert, the student and the school. Perhaps most importantly, the student must drive the project and not simply follow the mentor’s passion or path.
Humanities Can Have Mentors, Too
Many schools focus on science and engineering to establish mentor relationships, and the examples above suggest that those initial presumptions dominate most programs. But the example of the jazz musician opens the door to humanities and social sciences.
Students interested in historical studies and literary analysis gain tremendous insight and skills working with professors, curators, critics and other professionals. These projects can be as successful as the science, engineering and medicine ones. What school wouldn’t want to promote a student who works with a curator and publishes a critique of a contemporary artist’s oeuvre?
Clearly, the tangible outcomes from mentor-based programs can be leveraged as selling points to recruit new students. Admissions folks surmise that parents interested in a competitive edge with colleges will desire these advanced study opportunities. In fact, both assumptions are true: parents seem attracted to these programs, and colleges value them highly as well.
The flip side is the unanticipated and uncontrollable marketing schools don’t count on: the mentors themselves. They will talk, generate publicity and represent the program from their points-of-view. Be prepared to coach the experts and even create a damage-control plan if a relationship goes bad.
What Are The Experts Expert At?
A brief survey of students who worked with external mentors for their high school science fairs reported that the mentor’s most valuable asset was the ability to explain difficult concepts, complicated equipment, complex procedures and other puzzling parts of their work. Those responses suggest that a world-renowned botanist who can’t articulate the meaning of the scientific classification system—kingdom, order, family, and genus—is not a valuable guide despite the notoriety.
Obviously, mentors need to be fully credible in their fields, but they also need to grasp the concept of developmentally appropriate interactions to make the relationship fruitful. Interviewing prospects for this skill needs to occur before they work with students.
Some of the best mentors can perform their most important duties via email and other communications beyond personal meetings. Ideally, schools want students to work in the same environment as the expert, but when that situation isn’t possible, the best long-distance mentor is better than an average one in person.
A student in my US Women’s History class wanted to chart domestic incidences of eating disorders with those of Eastern European countries—the region of her ancestry. A well-published psychology professor from a university in another state emailed her appropriate topic overviews, sent her to data sites for the numbers, and answered a list of questions with quotable responses. The relationship was so smooth, the expert later consulted on the student’s year-long project about age-appropriate youth sports.
Mentoring Isn’t Free
Faculty tend to welcome the idea of leaning on mentors, because the system seems to free them from guiding all of their own students. If some of the class works with external experts, the teacher’s responsibility decreases, so they can focus more energy on fewer students.
Hold on! The logistics of supporting these relationships can be a nightmare for teachers unaccustomed to handling details like transportation, meeting spaces, Skype, etc. If the faculty must support the infrastructure of the plan in addition to teaching the course, prepare for an eventual—if not immediate—rebellion. Most briefs recommend a paid coordinator who only handles the logistics.
Mentoring the Mentors
Mentors need support, too. They may be experts in a subject area, but schools are experts about students. Mentors need—and they will want—thoughtful guidelines about how to help adolescents.
For example, most volunteers give teenagers a bit more slack than teachers do, and we know that an inch leads to a foot and so on. A strict list of unacceptable behaviors coupled with a stern insistence that the rules are good for students will encourage the adults to report snafus in the relationship quickly, well before the yard becomes an irreparable football field.
The Obvious Concerns
I would be entirely remiss if I didn’t cover the critical concerns those of us who work with adolescents always worry about. Before engaging an external mentor, please gather references about the person, specifically about trustworthiness and appropriateness around children.
Likewise, ask around about accidents, incidents and other potential liability crises. School counsel needs to know who is doing what with whom under whose authority. If counsel advises against a situation, heed the advice.
And be careful about intellectual property rights. Sounds absurd, right? But if the lab the two 12th grade students in the opening worked with owns any discovery made on the premises, that university controls the rights to their work. It’s a harsh reality of the external world schools don’t want students to learn after the thrill of discovery.
Image attribution flickr user britishcouncilsignapore; Mentoring Students: Tips & Reminders For Success