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Linking Mentors, Students Via the Internet

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Support from a mentor can help women studying engineering and science remain in the field. Distance and schedule conflicts can make personal mentoring meetings difficult, but MentorNet allows students and mentors to communicate via e-mail. Executive director Carol Muller talks about how the program benefits students and mentors. Included: A description of how MentorNet connects mentors and students.

Carol Muller

MentorNet, founded in 1997 by Dr. Carol Muller, is a nonprofit e-mentoring organization that pairs college women studying engineering or science with professionals working in those fields. The goal of the program is to provide the young women with support that will encourage them to continue studying engineering and science. More than 115 academic institutions now participate in the MentorNet program, which received the 2001 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

Muller, now the executive director of MentorNet, based the program on experience she gained as co-founder of an organization to help retain female undergraduate engineering students at Dartmouth College in the early 1990s. Muller conducted additional research to learn how other campuses in the United States were dealing with the under representation of women in technical fields, and to find out what was being done to address the problem.

Education World: Why is there a need for MentorNet, particularly for female engineering students?

Carol B. Muller: Mentoring has been shown to be an effective strategy to enhance the retention of women studying engineering and science. Only 10 percent of the engineering work force in the United States is female, and just 20 percent of students enrolled in engineering degree programs are women. On average, women who leave the study of engineering have higher grade point averages than men who stay in the program.

A number of studies clearly show that women are fully capable of high levels of achievement in science and math and that they have the ability to be great engineers and scientists. So there is interest in keeping in the field those women who start college considering a career in engineering. Not enough mentors are available to meet the demand, however. In addition, students benefit most from multiple mentors and from being exposed to the unique perspective that professionals working in the industry can provide. MentorNet taps the power of Internet communication technology to provide a large-scale program through e-mail-based mentoring. The Internet component allows many students and mentors who would otherwise face severe time and location constraints to participate in the program.

EW: How do you recruit mentors?

Muller: MentorNet mentors are men and women professionals employed in industry or government. We reach them with information about the opportunity to mentor women studying engineering or related sciences in a number of ways:

  • Each MentorNet partnering organization, including corporations, professional societies, government labs, and agencies, has an identified volunteer representative who helps get the word out to prospective mentors. MentorNet supplies volunteers with posters, brochures, and/or e-mail draft text to assist those efforts.
  • We post a "Call for Mentors" on relevant electronic mailing lists.
  • A "Call for Mentors" is broadcast through informal partnerships and/or networking with professional societies.
  • We directly recruit mentors by setting up exhibit space at professional/technical conferences.
  • Some participating universities and colleges encourage alumni to sign up as mentors.
  • Prospective mentors hear about the opportunity from newspaper or magazine articles or other media coverage.
  • About 40 to 50 percent of our mentors sign up for another year.
  • Prospective mentors frequently hear about MentorNet through friends and colleagues.

EW: What are some of the students' questions or concerns?

Muller: Students frequently wonder whether it's possible to combine a scientific or technical career with raising a family. They're interested in knowing what the day-to-day life of a working professional consists of. They wonder what kinds of work are possible given a degree in a specific scientific or technical field. They sometimes want to know how what they're learning in the classroom can be applied to real-world situations. They are interested in knowing if the scientific and technical professionals like their work.

EW: What type of feedback do you get from participants?

Muller: On the whole, our participants are quite enthusiastic about MentorNet. More than 90 percent of students and more than 90 percent of mentors who respond to our year-end surveys say they would recommend the program to a colleague or friend.

The students say participating in MentorNet helps increase their self-confidence, understanding of engineering and science fields, and their likelihood of remaining in an engineering or science program. They also say the experience increases the likelihood they will seek mentors in the future.

Mentors indicate that they particularly appreciate the opportunity to interact with the next generation of professionals and that they like "giving back" to their professions -- being able to reciprocate, or improve upon, the mentoring they received as emerging professionals. Many mentors say they gain managerial, communication, and mentoring skills from the experience of serving as mentors; some report a recommitment to their chosen careers as a result of serving as mentors.

This e-interview is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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