Promoting relational equity with science mentoring programs

Klein, E. R., & Bell, P. (2023). Distributing expertise and building relationships: Designing for relational equity in youth–scientist mentoring interactions. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 27(1).

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Despite the potential science mentoring programs have in promoting interest in STEM, traditional approaches have some limitations in enforcing this. 
    • Traditional mentorships don’t acknowledge youths’ interests and insights due to their one-way transmission of knowledge. 
    • Programs often disregard relationship-building between youths and scientists. 
  • Youth-scientist interactions through university-community partnerships can strengthen youths’ knowledge about science and offer them opportunities to engage in scientific practices.
  • This study evaluates how STEM OUT (a science mentoring program that pairs teenagers with graduate-level scientists) promoted relational equity between youths and scientists through relationship building and knowledge exchange. 
  • STEM OUT’s mentoring approach encouraged mentors to collaborate with their mentees on their [the mentee’s] research projects, not just supervise them.  
  • Taking time to develop relationships encouraged knowledge to be circulated equitably among all participants.
  • Sharing personal, research-related experiences with mentees (e.g., feeling nervous about presenting or experiencing failure in designing experiments) validated mentees as they worked on their research projects. 
  • Similarly, having youths bond with scientists in mentoring contexts and share their research with them broadens their understanding of how science, in practice, is embedded in community work and social interactions.
    • By demonstrating the similarities between research conducted by the mentors and the mentees, youths can envision how science doesn’t just center around facts but also a myriad of social practices as well.  
  • Participating in science mentoring programs, like STEM OUT, not only provides insights into how programs can dismantle hierarchical mentoring relationships but also has the potential to reframe how youths perceive their futures as scientists. 
    • Expanding mentoring relationships beyond science to include relationship-building and knowledge exchange can broaden people’s understandings of what counts as science, who can become a scientist, and what it means to be a scientist.  
  • Considering affective and emotional experiences associated with “doing science” and applying these insights into learning practices can have significant positive outcomes for youths.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Science mentoring programs are powerful opportunities for youth to develop conceptual knowledge, undertake authentic practices, and have impacts on their science-related identity work. Here, we use design-based research to understand how a university–community partnership expanded upon traditional mentoring structures to facilitate relational equity (DiGiacomo & Gutiérrez, 2016) through distributing expertise and building relationships between participants. We analyzed qualitative data from 2 years of the STEM OUT mentoring program to develop claims about the elements of program design that led to distributed expertise and building relationships. Key findings include the need to design structures that position all participants as having expertise, highlight relationship-building as integral for youth–scientist interactions, and facilitate equitable power dynamics. Our findings are articulated as design principles for other youth–scientist mentoring programs, with the goal of broadening participation in the sciences by redefining not only who participates, but also what counts as science.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study was concerned with how a science mentoring program could be structured to promote relational equity between scientist and youth participants, and, further, how to articulate those structures as broader recommendations to inform the design of other scientist–youth partnership programs. The Findings section addresses the first question, detailing how distributing expertise and prioritizing relationship-building fostered less hierarchal relations. Through documenting the iterative changes to the STEM OUT program design, we portrayed how designed features contributed to these outcomes. Below, we situate these features in the broader conceptual framework, then describe principles of design that can be adapted for any setting for scientist–youth interactions, even those of short-term duration. Finally, we address the broader implications of designing for relational equity between scientists and youth, in terms of expanding what counts as participation in the scientific fields

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