A Pilot Study Examining the Design, Development, and Initial Evaluation of a Virtual STEM Peer Mentoring Program for Underrepresented Minority Women (UMW)

Concurrent Session 6

Brief Abstract

Given the persistent disparity in equitable representation of minority women in STEM fields and their documented lack of participation in peer mentoring programs due to the accessibility of F2F programs, this project and research focused on providing underrepresented minority women the opportunity for peer mentorship via online systems at HBCUs.


Dr. Rockinson-Szapkiw has a B.A. in Elementary Education, M.A. in Counseling, Ed.D. in Distance Education with a focus on instructional design and technology in higher education and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. She is currently an Associate Professor within an instructional design and technology program at the University of Memphis and coordinates the EdD program. Dr. Rockinson-Szapkiw has authored and co-authored more than three dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and presented and co-presented over 50 professional presentations nationally and internationally, with scholarship primarily focusing on distance education and technology integration in the higher education classroom to improve national and international student success, namely persistence.
Dr. Jillian L. Wendt serves as Associate Professor of Science Education in the Division of Education, Health, and Social Work, College of Arts & Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) in Washington, DC. In addition to researching, leading grant projects, and teaching at UDC, Dr. Wendt serves an active role in the broader education community. You will often find her volunteering for professional organizations, providing professional development opportunities, and partnering with education boards and institutions locally and nationally. Dr. Wendt’s work has been recognized through receipt of the Association of Teacher Educators Robert Stevenson Scholarship, the Scholar of Promise Award for the College of Arts and Sciences at UDC, and the Accomplishment in Research/Scholarship Award for the College of Arts and Sciences at UDC, among other accolades. Dr. Wendt’s areas of expertise and research interests include technology in education, science education, STEM education, and teacher preparation.
Jacqueline Stephen has 16 years of experience in instructional design, training and development, and teaching. She has worked at Geisinger Health Systems in Danville, Pennsylvania, as a Systems Analyst. Her work focused on the integration of Epic Systems, facilitating workshops and providing hands-on instructional support to physicians and nurses. She spent five years at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, developing and facilitating workshops for faculty on the pedagogical application of various software tools, and managing the learning management system. She worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), for seven years teaching undergraduate courses in performance management, training and development, management and leadership and providing instruction in technology tools to student members of the Military Language Institute. She also served as the Coordinator of Faculty Professional Development, helping to identify training needs, organizing and facilitating workshops, and leading initiatives to effectively integrate technology and pedagogy into teaching and learning. She joined Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement in 2014, where she serves as Instructional Designer, Director of the Office of Distance Learning, and Instructor in the Department of Leadership Studies' undergraduate program in Human Resources and Development. Jacqueline earned a BS in Elementary Education and a MS is Instructional Technology, both from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (USA). She holds a Certificate in Distance Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Education in Instruction and Curriculum Leadership with a focus on Instructional Design and Technology from The University of Memphis. Jacqueline has facilitated workshops centered on leadership as part of Georgia’s Department of Public Health’s Leadership Development Program and was a plenary speaker and workshop facilitator at the 2019 inaugural Kosovo Leadership Foundation in Pristina, Kosovo. Jacqueline is currently serving as President of the Association Supporting Computers Users in Education (ASCUE).

Extended Abstract

In this presentation, the authors give an overview of the research literature and discuss the conceptualization, development, implementation, and evaluation of a virtual peer mentorship model to support minority women in developing interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), intent to persist in STEM, and self-efficacy in STEM.  The virtual peer mentoring model will be presented, followed by a demonstration of how the model was used to create the virtual peer mentoring experience. The implementation and evaluation (i.e., mixed methods findings) of the program will be discussed, with presenters highlighting the lessons learned from the challenges and successes experienced. Presenters will engage participants in discussion about future projects and research.

The need for this project was grounded in the literature, which supports that STEM fields are still considered “non-traditional” fields for women, despite efforts to encourage the participation of women and equal treatment (Fouad, Singh, Caapaert, Chang, & Wan, 2016). Women are least represented in fields such as computer sciences, physics, and engineering. When considering women and racial ethnic minorities, the NSF (2019) reports that, while the number of bachelor’s degrees in psychology, social sciences, and biological sciences awarded to Black women and Brown women has increased since 1996, the number of bachelor’s degrees in engineering has increased only slightly for Brown women and has decreased for Black women. The number of bachelor’s degrees in other STEM related fields, including mathematics and statistics has also decreased among Black women. Approximately three times as many women scientists and engineers, as compared to male scientists and engineers, were not actively engaged in the STEM workforce. And, while women may initially engage in STEM degree programs and graduate with STEM degrees, a relatively small proportion of remain choose to remain in STEM careers (Fouad, Singh, Cappaert, Chang, & Wan, 2016). As such, the participation (or lack thereof) of women racial and ethnic minorities in STEM degrees is concerning given the need for economic sustainability, utilization of potential talent, and equitable representation within such fields.

Given the grim statistics, there is a need to develop interventions to support women’s and racial and ethnic minority populations’ participation in STEM and for encouraging their persistence and retention in STEM degrees and careers (Ireland et al., 2018). While the particular barriers to engaging in and persisting in STEM degrees and programs varies among content areas and personal contexts, women and racial and ethnic minorities report inconsistent and insufficient support and encouragement as reasons why some elect not to participate in STEM (Cadaret, Hartung, Subich, & Weigold, 2017; Ireland et al., 2018). Current interventions and supports have “not sufficiently addressed their simultaneous racialized and gendered experiences in educational contexts” (Ireland et al., 2018, p. 228).

One potential means for increasing the support, encouragement, and persistence of women and racial and ethnic minorities in STEM is peer mentorship. Mentorship is “a reciprocal, dynamic relationship between mentor (or mentoring team) and mentee that promotes satisfaction and development of both” (McGee & Keller, 2007, p. 316), and peer mentorship is a mentoring relationship between two peers, one usually more experienced than the other. Fletcher and Mullen (2012) noted that mentoring provides the mentor and mentee with “professional support, learning and professional knowledge generation within the context in which it is practiced and within broader societal norms and values” (p. 109).

Effective mentoring has been cited as one of the most impactful and critical elements of encouraging women’s participation in and persistence in STEM degrees and careers (Dawson, Bernstein, & Bekki, 2015). Mentorship, including peer mentorship, has been connected to improving factors often associated with reasons women and racial and ethnic minorities do not persist in STEM careers and degrees, including but not limited to loss of interest, poor self-efficacy, lack of confidence, poor development of a STEM identity, and inability to successfully intersect a STEM identity with other salient identities  (Baier, Markman, & Pernice-Duca, 2016; McGee, 2016; Pfund, Byars-Winston, Branchaw, Hurtado, & Eagan, 2016).

Given the importance of mentoring, a number of programs, books, and ideas on the topic have emerged. Unfortunately, many peer mentoring programs are not based on empirical research (McGeee, 2016), and those programs that are empirically based focus primarily on face-to-face (F2F) mentorship and research lab mentorship. Many reports exist noting that traditional, F2F peer mentoring programs are not meeting the needs of women and racial and ethnic minorities, especially those at HBCUs. Therefore, there is a need to develop and examine the efficacy of mentoring and peer mentoring approaches, focusing on psychosocial and personal issues which are external to the research relationship, and to enable women and racial and ethnic minorities to build community, to develop STEM identities that intersect with other salient identities, to develop confidence and skills to successfully navigate the STEM discipline, and to ultimately persist. Of central importance in developing and assessing these approaches is diversity and equity--that is, providing mentors and mentees with training and a mentoring experience which recognizes and addresses the unique differences and challenges experienced by women and racial and ethnic minorities in STEM (McGee, 2016; Pfund et al., 2016). Moreover, for women and racial and ethnic minorities, there needs to be a transformation in traditional approaches to F2F, dyadic approaches to mentoring as research has documented that many individuals often do not take advantage of mentoring and peer-mentoring opportunities as they are not offered in a manner that is convenient and considers the unique needs and responsibilities that women and racial and ethnic minorities hold. A virtual or online experience has the potential to provide the convenience and flexibility needed.

Therefore, we developed a virtual peer mentoring project for women and racial and ethnic minorities at two historically Black institutions (HBCUs). The overarching purpose of the project was to develop, implement, and test a virtual peer mentorship model facilitating mentorship relationships between graduate student mentors and undergraduate student mentees in an effort to increase interest in STEM, intent to persist in STEM, and STEM self-efficacy.

The approach consisted of three main phases. Phase I encompassed virtual mentor training modules. The training consisted of 6 virtual, interactive, self-paced modules that provided approximately 10-15 hours of instruction.  Each module consisted of three main components: topical discussion, case study, and application.  Each module also required the completion of self-reflective activities and collaborative discussions to encourage discourse and interaction in the learning sequence. The training was hosted on a WordPress website and the interactive components were hosted through Google+ Communities. The modules were conceptualized and based on Bandura's (1977) theory of self-efficacy, Tinto’s (1987, 1993, 2017) Institutional Departure Model, Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) science identity framework, and intersectionality (Davis, 2008; Abes, Jones, & McEwen, 2007). In the design of the modules, consideration was given for cognitive theories (Mayer, 2009; Moreno & Park, 2010) to minimize cognitive load and Matteson’s (2014) “whole student” concept to maximize student development.

Phase II of consisted of the mentoring relationship, which lasted one academic year. Within this phase, women and racial and ethnic minority graduate students enrolled in STEM degree programs across HBCUs were assigned three to four undergraduate student mentees, which were matched by gender, race, ethnicity, and degree program. Mentors met with mentees at least four times per month, with two meetings being F2F and the remaining meetings via distance modes (phone, chat, web conferencing, etc.). Mentors facilitated activities, which catered to the needs of the mentee and were provided in the training, aimed at building self-efficacy, STEM identity, and persistence. Topics of goal setting, navigational capital, and handling microaggressions, for instance, were covered.  After each meeting, mentors completed short mentoring notes.

Phase III took place concurrently with Phase II. In Phase III, participating HBCUs hosted a series of STEM Luncheons in which the mentors, mentees, faculty, students, and community were invited to hear presentations from women and racial and ethnic minorities who have been successful in a STEM career. These experts spoke about their experiences, challenges, and means for overcoming and mitigating such challenges. The STEM Luncheons, hosted on campuses but also web broadcasted, provided an opportunity for vicarious experience for the mentors and mentees, as well as opportunities for broader collaboration and networking.

Evaluation questions were examined using a mixed method approach to data collection, including: (1) Does women and racial and ethnic minorities’  participation in the program contribute to their self-efficacy, skills, and intentions to persist? and (2) What elements in the program contribute or hinder changes in STEM self-efficacy, skills, and behaviors of women and racial and ethnic minorities?.

Descriptive statistics for the pretest and posttest data were computed to evaluate whether the program promoted an increase in self-efficacy, and in turn, mentor’s mentorship skill development and mentee and mentor’s STEM persistence. The percentage of change from the pretest to the posttest for each validated instrument to measure each construct was computed. Results demonstrated an increase in all areas for both mentors and mentees. Data from open ended questions, interviews, and focus groups were analyzed using Stake’s (1994, 2006) strategic approach to analyze data, including categorical aggregation and direct interpretation.  Initial themes that emerged included Training Structure and Content; Required Reflection and Increased Awareness; Community and Connection Opportunities; Examples to be Emulated; Additional Topics Needed; and Online Format. From these results numerous lessons were learned that add to the current body of knowledge and can further inform future research.