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Mentorship Programs are Key to Student Involvement, Success in STEM

Study of two engineering student programs explains how they generate beneficial outcomes for participants– particularly participants underrepresented in STEM

A group of students and staff wearing Summer Engineering Institute shirts.
The Summer Engineering Institute is one of many programs run by the IDEA Engineering Student Center at UC San Diego meant to foster community among engineering and computer science students, and support them through to graduation.

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Engineering and computer science undergraduate students who take part in mentorship programs are more involved in campus communities than those who don’t, according to a study at the University of California San Diego. The study establishes an empirical–and quantifiable–connection between mentoring programs and campus involvement. 

A growing body of research has shown that having a social support system and a sense of belonging is particularly beneficial to student success for students from groups underrepresented in STEM fields. The assumption was that  mentoring programs would encourage students to get involved in the communities of practice–student organizations or research opportunities, for example–that would provide this social support network, but no studies had actually shown whether students’ community involvement was stronger with a mentoring program than without it. 

Now, a study of two undergraduate engineering mentorship programs at the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering confirms that assumption. The study shows that underrepresented students in engineering and computer science who participated in these programs were more likely to be involved in research opportunities, peer leadership roles and student organizations than demographically similar peers who did not participate in these programs. The study found that mentors, and particularly peer leaders, provided the necessary social support to encourage student involvement. 

The paper was published in Studies in Engineering Education. 

It was important to examine assumptions about how mentoring programs promote community involvement, and our findings have particular value for STEM education researchers and practitioners,” said Lisa Trahan, first author of the paper and the former Director of Strategic Initiatives & Assessment at the IDEA Engineering Student Center at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “Articulating how programs are expected to yield desired changes or student outcomes is key to both designing and operationalizing effective initiatives. These findings help illuminate key components of impactful programs, including implicit features that deserve greater attention.”

The study looked at students in the IDEA Scholars and ACES Scholars programs run by the IDEA Engineering Student Center at the Jacobs School of Engineering. The IDEA Engineering Student Center works to foster an inclusive and welcoming community, increase retention rates, and promote a sustainable culture of academic excellence among all engineering students at UC San Diego with a particular focus on students from groups underrepresented in engineering. 

The IDEA Scholars and ACES Scholars programs both serve high numbers of first-generation and low-income students, with ACES Scholars serving almost exclusively low-income students who are Pell Grant eligible. IDEA Scholars is an ongoing program while ACES Scholars was funded by a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant that ran from 2016–2022. The programs share many features, including beginning with the Summer Engineering Institute, weekly discussions during the first fall quarter, one-on-one advising with program coordinators, and various professional development opportunities.

The Summer Engineering Institute is a five-week, residential, credit-bearing summer transition program for incoming first-year students in an engineering major to foster community and prepare students for the rigors of university study.

The study looked at students involved in both the IDEA Scholars and ACES Scholars programs, as well as students who participated in the Summer Engineering Institute but did not participate further in either scholar program, and a comparison group of students who participated in neither the summer program nor the scholar programs. 

All 383 SEI participants from summers 2016–2019, including scholars and non-scholars, were invited to participate in the study. Additionally, a random sample of 986 peer non-participants from first-time engineering students in the 2016–2019 cohorts were invited to participate. Ultimately, 256 students participated in the survey, with 29 students then interviewed with follow-up questions. 

Ultimately, ACES and IDEA Scholars were more likely to be involved with a professional or student group for women or minority engineers, IDEA Center sponsored activities (primarily leadership roles affiliated with the IDEA Center), and undergraduate research experiences compared to students who did SEI only and students in the Comparison group. The data is even more striking for first-generation, Pell Grant eligible, and Latinx scholars.

Two students work on a project together
As part of the Summer Engineering Institute, students take a course towards their major, such as the hands-on Making, Breaking and Hacking Stuff course run by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In this class, students work on projects in teams while learning how to use the tools in the campus maker's spaces. 
Three charts detailing the increased involvement in undergraduate research, IDEA Center activities and diversity student organizations among students who participated in ACES Scholars and IDEA Scholars programming than those who did not.
First generation, Latinx and Pell Grant-eligible students who participated in ACES Scholars and IDEA Scholar programming were more likely to be involved in undergraduate research, IDEA Center activities and diversity student organizations than a comparative group of students who did not participate in either progam. Additional data available in the paper.

"We spent a lot of time within the IDEA Center evaluating how we could improve our retention programs, from the moment students stepped on campus for the Summer Engineering Institute, through graduation," said Ruben Rodriguez, IDEA Scholars Program Coordinator. "When I first started, both the IDEA and ACES programs were focused on retention. As retention improved, we asked if the programs could evolve into a support system beyond retention - can we make a program that not only helps engineering students graduate, but graduate with options? I believe the study demonstrates we're on the right track."

The researchers found that the most supportive program elements for scholars were the Summer Engineering Institute, a cohort of peer scholars, and staff advising. In follow-on interviews asking how the program elements relate to involvement in communities of practice, they found that mentors, including peer leaders, program coordinators, and faculty, provided the necessary social support to encourage participants’ involvement. 

“This study’s findings show the important role that student support and mentorship programs provide, particularly for student groups underrepresented in STEM,” said paper co-author Darren Lipomi, a professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego and faculty director of the IDEA Engineering Student Center. “We now have data to back up what we long suspected– that these programs do indeed increase student involvement in the crucial groups and experiences that are critical to supporting underrepresented students through to a degree in engineering and computer science.”

At the time of the study, leadership of the IDEA Engineering Student Center included Olivia Graeve, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and IDEA Center faculty director, and Gennie Miranda, the IDEA Center director of operations. Learn more about the IDEA Center and its programming here.

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