As part of Mentor Month, one expert discusses STEM, women, mentorship, and how the whole economy could change

mentors-STEM-students In an age where anyone with an internet connection can learn everything from how to cut a pineapple to “Intro to Engineering” from MIT, are mentors still relevant to students interested in their future careers, and do women in STEM need mentors more than other groups?

According to Karen Purcell, professional engineer, founder and president of PK Electrical, and author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, it’s not because a YouTube video gives a virtual tour of a lab that students feel secure in their career choices.

“Nothing compares to one-on-one interaction between people,” explained Purcell. “It is the direct conversation and encouragement that makes mentorship valuable…The relationship goes beyond just the exchange of information, but making eye contact, picking up on body language, and experiencing the human contact with the mentor is an important part of the learning process.”

(Next page: Mentors, women, and STEM)

Purcell also emphasized that the human connection is vital, not just for an easier ability to respond to personal questions, but also because one of the best ways to thrive in a career is to exude confidence—confidence that can only occur through knowing what to expect and support from others.

“One of the hurdles…is maintaining confidence in good times and bad,” she noted. “Maintaining your confidence at all levels throughout your career is important.”

Purcell explained that confidence in a career is especially relevant in relation to women in STEM fields, as showing a lack of confidence helps others buy into the notion that women do not belong in the STEM fields.

“Without confidence, we find ourselves doubting that we can realistically make it in our fields. This can lead to us leaving the fields, which is a pressing concern that plagues women in STEM careers.”

In 2005, the Society of Women Engineers conducted a retention survey of over 6,000 engineering graduates. The survey indicated that one in four women were either unemployed or employed in other fields compared to one in 10 men.

“Just as attracting talented women to STEM fields is a real challenge, so is retaining them,” Purcell stated. “Society continues to view women as the primary caregiver in the home and with children. Allowing women to see the opportunity of following their career dreams and also having a family is imperative. Mentors and role models guiding these young women in balancing all of their life goals is a benefit to society as a whole. ”

Purcell argued that without more women in STEM careers and without mentors, many girls interested in STEM will continue to have problems envisioning certain positions as viable possibilities, even if they have some intrinsic interest in the subject matter.

“If girls cannot visualize themselves in STEM careers, because they have never seen women in those positions, they will be much less likely to ever use their innate aptitudes and abilities in a math or science-oriented specialty. That will truly be a loss of gigantic proportion, for our women, our profession and our country.”

(Next page: What to do outside of mentorship)

Indeed, Purcell may be on to something. While young people today have more opportunities to become exposed to STEM subjects than 20 years ago, more still needs to be done: A recent U.S. Department of Commerce report predicts that occupations in the STEM fields are expected to grow by 17 percent by 2018, nearly double the rate of growth in non-STEM occupations.

For Purcell, mentors are one way to help increase the growth of STEM-interested students and keep them interested enough to pursue a career, since “unlike a path in medicine or education where the individual can visualize the tasks involved or have come into contact with individuals who have chosen those careers, most are not in contact with people such as engineers or scientists,” she said. “Having a mentor assists them in opening their eyes to the wealth of opportunity available.”

Yet, not all mentors are created equal, and Purcell explained that even though being a mentor is fulfilling, certain expectations of a mentor must be met.

“Our mentors may not always be the people with whom we get along best or those who are our immediate superiors,” she said. “A mentor is not only someone who is willing to take the time to teach us techniques and processes, but also someone who takes an interest in our long-term advancement. Because this person can see our potential, he or she is willing to go beyond job duties and put in the extra work to ensure that we gain the understanding needed to progress.”

Outside of personal mentors, Purcell also advised that students join peer groups to boost confidence in their interests.

On the national level, Purcell suggests that proper funding on the local, state and federal levels assist with mentorship.

“Invite local professionals to speak to students at the Middle and High School levels so they can put faces and real life experiences to the knowledge they are obtaining can have a life altering impact” she concluded. “Books, such as mine, [should also be] offered as part of the curriculum so they can personalize what they can actually do with their knowledge.”