My work as a scientist is incredibly rewarding.
There’s the thrill of discovering something new, the excitement of seeing a paper published, or the validation that comes from watching some of my work influence policy and practice around the world.
But perhaps one of my favourite parts of my job is mentoring the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals.
I consider myself fairly experienced in this area. I’ve supervised students at every level of post-secondary education; I regularly speak to high school students about careers in STEM; and I participate in community events.
How much does mentorship really impact today’s students? How do we apply mentorship in post-secondary students’ early career stages? The recent Canada 2067 Youth Insights were very revealing.
What students need to become the next generation of STEM leaders.
Over a six-month period, more than a thousand students from 85 schools across Canada came together to imagine how the STEM education system should evolve to meet the demands of the future. With 3M Canada’s support, I had the opportunity to participate in the first of five Youth Summits.
Common themes emerged, all of which were in surprising alignment with global trends in STEM education and youth leadership. Some of these I’ve discussed before, such as the importance of experiential learning and transforming the curriculum to include personalized, community-based educational experiences.
One that particularly stood out for me was the importance of mentorship.
Students want meaningful relationships with adults, educators, and mentors from the community alike that they can trust and feel truly care for them.
Meaningful mentorship is personalized mentorship.
Many mentors are correct in assuming that students want to find out more about the next steps they might take in their STEM journey. What surprised me, though, was how our youth emphasized the importance of connecting these steps to their own interests and passions, and not just the curriculum.
It’s easy to fall into the mentoring trap of doling out advice on specific courses to take or skills to develop in order to embark on a course of study. Instead, our mentoring conversations need to begin with what excites a student.
Find out what are they passionate about, both within and outside of STEM. Rather than trying to fit them into an existing traditional educational program, we should be emphasizing personalized curricula and time spent cultivating interests outside the classroom. At 3M Canada, student interns are encouraged to pursue personal research that keeps them, and their mentors, on the path to personal development and innovation in and out of the workplace.
Looking back at my own educational journey, so much of what I pursued outside of my degree – things like working at the campus newspaper – ended up influencing my ultimate career path, and I’m so grateful to the mentors who encouraged me to look beyond the lab.
Personal growth is as important as professional guidance.
I was also surprised to learn how many of our young people want more than just career direction, but also advice around the intangible aspects of their educational journey. The want to understand what styles of learning work best for them, how to navigate the educational system, how to live a balanced life, and even social skills.
It made me realize that my role as a mentor goes beyond simply setting students up for professional success, since personal growth and development are just as vital. At 3M Canada, 2018 was the year of the mentor. Student interns and employees alike were encouraged to participate as a community to create a healthy space for trial, error, and personal development. One person may not have all the answers. That’s why I believe students are best served by having a small community of mentors, each able to offer sage guidance in one or two areas.
The insights shared by the Canada 2067 Youth Summit participants are meant to shape the future of STEM education in Canada, but it’s clear that individually, we as STEM professionals can use them to change our practice now. This is the beauty of mentoring – not only did I have the chance to inspire our next generation, but I too have learned from them.
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