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Mentoring Manual

Student background: aspects to consider when mentoring

You have chosen a talented student – now you need to match the tasks and mentoring environment to the background of the student. Talking to the student is the best way to understand his or her background. In addition, consider reaching out to a faculty member at the student's home institution – of course with the student’s permission.

Matching the placement tasks with the background and talents of a student are critical for the success of the placement: for the student, graduate student or post doc mentor, and you. Talk carefully to the student to understand his or her technical and work and academic background. If a student's background is hands-on and the project is more theoretical or computer modeling, then try to add some hands-on work to the project as soon as possible, to increase the chances for the student’s feeling of early success and to instill self-confidence.

"Today I just had a student say ‘this is the first time that I have asked a technician for help. I want to make sure that I am not wasting their time or coming across as stupid.” So the student and I talked through the details of what she needed to ask, and I assured her that her questions were good and that the technician would tell her if they have time. I reassured her to just be clear and the technician will also be clear. I went to the lab about an hour later, and the student was working the crane and quite happy. It was a great break from the computer modeling work."

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., faculty mentor, Iowa State University

Another example would be to consider a student's background in using textbooks.

"One student was reading a book for a couple of days and I asked, 'how is it going?' The response was, 'This is actually the first time that I am just reading a text book. Normally I use the notes in class and examples in the text to get my class work done.' With that sort of background, the student may need additional guidance in how to read a textbook or technical paper when there are not specific homework problems to solve.

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., faculty mentor, Iowa State University

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Mentoring underrepresented minority students

“Underrepresented students need to establish a network of 'classical mentors' and identify strategies to establish these vital reciprocal relationships throughout their careers in STEM.”

- Mark Hernandez, Professor, Chemical Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, Director, Colorado Diversity Initiative

The following facts were presented in the National Academy of Sciences titles Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads, published in 2010 (PDF summary here). The report provides references to published literature supporting each of these findings. To understand and better address diversity in your programs see “The Road to Diversity: Are We There Yet?” This article talks about the importance of role models and mentoring as well as the need for producing a diverse population of scientists.

Review this information. It will guide you in the critical role you play as a faculty member, graduate student, or post-doc mentor. As you mentor, be very conscious of your role which goes far beyond helping the student have a successful placement.


  • Summer internships provide exposure to STEM careers – the exposure must provide information, create awareness, and ignite a passion for science (pg 81)

Build confidence to take on challenge

  • “Much of the research has focused on ways to address issues of student motivation and confidence, as the challenges are likely to incorporate psychosocial factors beyond simple questions of access and opportunity.” (pg 105)
  • “Thus one of the key ideas has been to enhance student’s confidence in their own abilities. This helps students turn the difficulties that students will have to overcome into challenges rather than threats.” (pg 105)
  •  Steering underrepresented students into less demanding courses and programs can be counterproductive when students should be challenged by encouraging them to take the highest level courses for which they are prepared (pg 81).

Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher provides useful perspectives on difference and circumstance within the mentoring experience in her article Cross-Cultural Mentoring: A Pathway to Making Excellence Inclusive.

Equal Access: Inclusive Strategies for Teaching Students with Disabilities (Case Study 3) demonstrates inclusive strategies for recruiting and retaining students with disabilities and women students (with particular emphasis on improving and increasing communication).  This document, and others like it, is from the National Center for Women and Information Technology: Promising Practices.

* Additional content in process.

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From a minority serving or majority institution

* Additional content is in process

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Students from different size institutions

The issues are both real and perceived. Focus on the student’s talent and realize that your perception of the student’s home institution and your comfort and practice with providing a nurturing environment can impact the success of the placement.

One important point is that neither the size of, nor a faculty mentor’s perception of, the prestige of an institution is directly correlated with the talent of a student. Research clearly shows that some students, for example Latino/a, choose to attend colleges near their home in order to be near family and also to save costs. Although these students may be admitted to colleges with prestigious reputations, they might choose to attend a smaller and sometimes less prestigious college near home. Focus your assessment and discussions on talent, not skills. Skills can be taught and expanded upon. Identify when an issue is related to a skill and then provide the resources for the student to gain that skill.

Smaller colleges often have a core commitment to maintaining nurturing environments. This is particularly the case for minority serving institutions. Thus, it is imperative that you are able to recognize questions and issues that are associated with a student’s expectation of more individual guidance than you may be used to giving, as distinct from questions and issues that are related to skill. Ask the student to assess and describe how they are experiencing the mentoring that you and your graduate student are providing relative to what they experience at their home institution. Their description may help you understand a different model, as well as how to adapt your mentoring and address the student’s expectations. For example, if the student suggests that they are used to having a faculty mentor available all the time to answer questions, then help them understand how to work with your schedule and also how to organize their questions into those 1) focused on getting help in a specific area and 2) getting reassurance and approval to proceed with their plan of work.

On some campuses, the enrollment is small enough that students receive a great deal of individual attention, encouragement and recognition. A student with this experience may need assistance with developing self- monitoring work habits. You can do this by discussing both the type of oversight that they received in the past as well as how you or other students managed to develop and practice more independent work habits.

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