How mentors contribute to Latinx adolescents’ social capital in the sciences

Sánchez, B., Mroczkowski, A. L., Flores, L. Y., de los Reyes, W., Ruiz, J., & Rasgado-Flores, (2021). How Mentors Contribute to Latinx Adolescents’ Social Capital in the Sciences. Journal of Adolescent Research, 0743558420985454.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Despite the growing importance of promoting STEM for youth, there’s still a limited amount of research that explores how mentoring can increase the social capital of Latinx youth participating in science-related mentoring programs. 
  • This study explores how mentors can advocate for Latinx STEM students’ social capital, and how social capital, in turn, can affect STEM outcomes for Latinx students.
  • Many mentees reported that their mentors bolstered their social capital by using, to some degree, both bonding and bridging approaches.
    • Bonding: getting to know your mentee, learning about their interests, and seeing their potential.
    • Bridging: providing advice, resources, opportunities to mentees
  • Findings indicate the importance for mentors to equally utilize bonding and bridging approaches to increase their mentees’ social capital in STEM mentoring programs.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

The aim of this study was to examine how mentors provide social capital to Latinx adolescents in science education. Participants were drawn from a long-term, comprehensive science support program at a medical university in the Midwest. Using a case study approach, various stakeholders participated in one-on-one, in-depth qualitative interviews: 11 Latinx high school and college students, three staff members, 12 graduate student mentors, and 13 faculty mentors. Protocols were approved by an Institutional Review Board. The qualitative analysis was guided by a modified grounded theory approach, which involved three steps: initial coding, focused coding, and modified axial coding. Participants described how mentors promoted youth’s social capital through bridging and bonding behaviors, which were related to students’ (a) enhanced professional development, (b) broadened perspectives about science specifically and education broadly, (c) exploration opportunities, and (d) increased interest in science. This study fills gaps in the literature by showing how bridging and bonding social capital are provided in mentoring relationships and by examining STEM mentoring in a Latinx adolescent sample. Study findings have implications for increasing Latinx students in the science education pipeline. Future directions for research on STEM mentoring and social capital are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This investigation showed how mentors promote social capital in science education for Latinx adolescents and the outcomes of their social capital. Given the underrepresentation of Latinx students who pursue and stay in STEM fields (SACNAS, 2019), educators and researchers are interested in mentoring as an intervention to increase the number of underrepresented students of color in STEM education and careers (Chemers et al., 2011). Most of the research on mentoring in STEM has focused on undergraduate students while fewer have examined younger students, particularly during adolescence (Kupersmidt et al., 2018). Adolescence is an important period for STEM mentoring because it has the potential to not only get teens interested in STEM, but it also helps them to develop a STEM identity, to engage with the STEM field, and to develop STEM skills (Kupersmidt et al., 2018), which may increase the likelihood that they enter and stay in STEM. Furthermore, there is a paucity of research on STEM mentoring in Latinx adolescents specifically. Our study filled these gaps in the literature by examining a long-term, comprehensive, science mentoring program targeting Latinx high schoolers.

Researchers have found that Latinx students have less access to institutional agents (Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003), who may benefit low-income, Latinx adolescents in their education (Stanton-Salazar, 2011). In fact, past research on low-income, Latinx adolescents revealed that they mostly report family members as natural mentors (Anderson et al., 2019; Sanchez et al., 2008; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003), who tend to have relatively lower educational attainment. Within the context of STEM, Latinx students are less likely to have role models and family members who study or work in STEM (Navarro et al., 2007) and are likely to experience racism and sexism in STEM disciplines (Garriott et al., 2019). Thus, understanding how to increase access to STEM through social capital interventions, such as mentoring, is needed to help Latinx students overcome these social and contextual barriers.

We found that volunteer mentors in a science mentoring program provided social capital via bonding and bridging behaviors, consistent with past research on Latinx students in STEM (Burke & Sunal, 2010; Cole & Espinoza, 2008; Daniels et al., 2019). Social capital theorists have conceptualized bonding social capital as occurring in within-group networks in which individuals in those networks share similar identities (e.g., family, race/ethnicity), whereas bridging social capital takes place across social networks (Lancee, 2010). Hence, bridging occurs across people of different identities. Mentoring programs, like STEMulate, are designed to offer bridging social capital by matching Latinx students to faculty and graduate student mentors in the sciences, who are outside of their networks. STEMulate program characteristics further enabled bridging social capital. Program staff and mentors provided students with information about science education and careers, guest speakers visited the program to talk about their science and health careers, and students got the opportunity to work in multiple research labs and with multiple mentors.

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