What online mentoring format is most effective for engaging girls in STEM? New study has answers!

Stoeger, H., Heilemann, M., Debatin, T., Hopp, M. D. S., Schirner, S., & Ziegler, A. (2021). Nine years of online mentoring for secondary school girls in STEM: An empirical comparison of three mentoring formats. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1483(1), 153–173. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14476

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Although online mentoring is a promising approach to promote STEM for girls, there isn’t a lot of research that explores the effectiveness of various online mentoring configurations. 
  • This study examined:
    • How one-on-one mentoring, many-to-many group mentoring (a non-dyadic relationship between 3 mentors & 3 mentees), and a hybrid form of mentoring (a group mentoring relationship made up by 2 combined mentoring dyads) affect outcomes in STEM activities, elective intentions, and certainty in career plans.
    • Does the experience of mentees communicating and networking with other program participants vary (i.e. mentors or other mentees), depending on the mentoring format?
    • What influence do communication and networking have on interindividual differences in STEM activities, STEM elective intentions, and certainty about career plan outcomes?
  • Findings indicate that all three configurations can be effective and that hybrid mentoring and, to a lesser extent, many-to-many group mentoring promote mentee communication and networking better than one-on-one mentoring. 
  • Group mentoring has the potential to provide more positive outcomes for girls in STEM.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Online mentoring can be useful for supporting girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet, little is known about the differential effects of various online mentoring formats. We examine the general and relative effectiveness of three online mentoring formats, one‐on‐one mentoring, many‐to‐many group mentoring, and a hybrid form of the two. All three formats were implemented in different years in the Germany‐wide online‐only mentoring program, CyberMentor, whose platform enables communication and networking between up to 800 girls (in grades 5–13) and 800 women (STEM professionals) each year. We combined longitudinal mentee data for all first‐year participants (N = 4017 girls, Mage = 14.15 years) from 9 consecutive mentoring years to evaluate and compare the three mentoring formats. Overall, all formats effected comparable increases in mentees’ STEM activities and certainty about career plans. However, mentees’ communication behavior and networking behavior on the mentoring platform differed between the three formats. Mentees in the hybrid mentoring format showed the most extensive STEM‐related communication and networking on the platform. We also analyzed the explanatory contributions of STEM‐related communication and networking on interindividual differences in the developmental trajectories of mentees’ STEM activities, elective intentions in STEM, and certainty about career plans, for each format separately.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The first aim of our study was to assess the general and relative effectiveness of three mentoring formats for increasing girls’ STEM activities, elective intentions in STEM, and certainty about career plans. In all three mentoring formats—one‐on‐one mentoring, many‐to‐many group mentoring (in which three mentees and three mentors were combined into a mentoring community without individual assignments of mentees to mentors), and hybrid mentoring (in which two mentoring dyads were combined into a mentoring community)—two of the three mentoring outcomes improved over the mentoring year (general effectiveness). The developmental trajectories of these mentoring outcomes did not differ between the three mentoring formats (relative effectiveness).

In all three mentoring formats, mentees’ STEM activities and certainty about career plans increased over the mentoring year. Mentees’ elective intentions in STEM did not change over the mentoring year in any of the three mentoring formats. Hence, our results appear to support the general effectiveness of the three mentoring formats for helping mentees to develop in the areas of STEM activities and certainty about career plans. As we did not have control groups for the three mentoring formats, a causal relation from mentoring format to the two outcomes cannot be identified on the basis of this study. However, two earlier studies of one‐on‐one mentoring in the same online‐only program, which were longitudinal and included a waitlist control group,8, 20 suggest that the relationships we observed are likely causal.

The increases we observed for mentees’ STEM activities and certainty about career plans may, in the long run, help redress the underrepresentation of women in STEM. Research illustrates how increasing girls’ STEM activities and certainty about career plans can increase the likelihood of later real‐life choices about studying and working in STEM.64, 65, 67, 68 For example, in a longitudinal study with secondary school students, it could be shown that students’ STEM activities predicted their expectancies in and valuing of STEM, which, in turn, predicted the number of STEM courses they chose several years later.65 Students’ STEM activities were even more predictive for later elective decisions than their grades.65 Other studies have illustrated a similar relationship between certainty about career plans and elective behaviors at the end of secondary school.68 Looking only at the results of the current study, we cannot conclude that mentees’ increases in STEM activities and certainty about career plans due to the online mentoring program will actually lead to real‐life choices of STEM studies or professions. For this, follow‐up studies would be needed. Still, our results can be interpreted as a first step in the right direction.

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