BU Wheelock Team Launches NSF-Funded Study of How Youth Mentors Facilitate STEM Learning, Teaching, and Doing

Left to right: Dr. Tucker Raymond, Dr. Olivares, Dr. Frankel

Co-Principal Investigators Dr. Eli Tucker-Raymond, Dr. Maria Olivares, and Dr. Kate Frankel have been awarded a three-year grant through the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources Core Research Program (ECR) to study how acting as peer mentors helps youth develop relational and personally meaningful science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) identities. The project will run from June 2020 through May 2023, with a total funding amount of $1.15 million.

More specifically, the team will partner with two local out-of-school organizations (The Young People’s Project and the South End Technology Center) and two Boston Public Schools (The English High School and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School) to work with youth to expand what it means to do STEM, by including teaching as a STEM practice and career, stating their belief that “such a broadening of what it means to know and do STEM is important for creating humanizing learning spaces for young people.”

Each of the project’s three co-PIs are BU Wheelock faculty members. Dr. Tucker-Raymond, a research associate professor, and Dr. Olivares, a research assistant professor, are both affiliated with the Earl Center for Learning & Innovation; Dr. Frankel is an assistant professor in BU Wheelock’s literacy education program; all three are part of the college’s Language & Literacy department.

The researchers begin their project summary by recognizing the persistent underrepresentation of people from communities of color in STEM across many areas, including teaching, engineering and laboratory work. That underrepresentation exists despite decades-long efforts to broaden such participation. They want to understand the idea of peer mentoring — positioning youth as facilitators of knowledge and experience to their peers — as a practice that could possibly lead to expanded youth identification and engagement with STEM knowledge and practices.

The team notes that more empirical research needs to be done to understand how peer mentoring might impact STEM learning in middle- and high school-aged youth. This project thus aims to learn from youth as they “construct and develop affiliations with STEM in their capacity as mentors, facilitators, and curators of STEM ideas and practices among younger youth.” In doing so, they will be developing the concept of youth pedagogical development, composed of three interrelated parts: learning STEM, learning to teach, and identifying with STEM and teaching. The team also seeks to better understand how to design formal and informal learning environments that support STEM identity development for youth of color through positioning and developing youth as knowledgeable experts and mentors in STEM.

Through the project’s partner organizations and schools, the team will work with approximately 140 youth ages 14-24, 96% of whom are from communities of color, who participate in existing initiatives in which youth act as mentors and teachers to others. The team will follow these youth mentors for two years, building case studies that “highlight how STEM learning, identity building, and pedagogy are developed when youth participate as mentors in sustained ways over longer stretches of time.”

By gathering and analyzing data related to how the mentors in these programs teach, and examining where they are most successful and where they might need support, the team hopes to develop principles that can inform training for the professionals who facilitate youth mentoring programs focused on STEM.

Beyond sharing their findings through a new project website and at academic conferences, the co-PIs will host a conference that involves the four partner organizations as well as other groups from across the US who are also using mentoring to support STEM learning and identity development. As they prepare to launch this new project, the team is responding to the realities of COVID-19 by expanding their thinking about mentoring on local and national scales, and considering how youth mentoring online as well as through local networks can support learning.