Research shows female STEM students are positively impacted by female near-peer mentors

two female students work at water station machine

UMass Amherst researchers track the effects of near-peer mentors on first-year female engineering majors in first-of-its-kind longitudinal study

Reaching and retaining more students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM majors is an ongoing goal of U.S. educational institutions, aiming to provide equal opportunity and access to rewarding jobs. Demand for STEM jobs is high, and the number of college graduates with necessary skills can be limited. Females and racial ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, which has also led to income inequality between sexes, and between racial minorities and white people.

Few long-term studies have been performed in real-world college environments that offer potential intervention pathways for students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM.

A recent article published in Nature Communications by Deborah J. Wu '22PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University; Kelsey Thiem PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology, Social Psychology, and Counseling at Ball State University; and Nilanjana Dasgupta PhD, provost professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Diversity Sciences at UMass Amherst, report findings from their longitudinal experiment that tracked undergraduate female participants’ academic experiences in engineering when assigned with either a female mentor, male mentor, or no mentor for their first year of college.

An earlier 2017 article using preliminary data from the experiment showed female student participants paired with a female mentor for their first year of college had increased preservation of feelings of belonging in their major, confidence, motivation, and aspirations to pursue postgraduate engineering degrees that lasted through their second year of college.

The latest results of the study show that these effects for confidence, motivation, aspirations, as well as emotional well-being continued to be preserved throughout the college years, including one-year post-graduation. The intervention also led to more success in attaining engineering internships and increased retention in STEM majors up to graduation.

Female participants assigned a male peer mentor or no mentor showed notable declines in confidence in their engineering skills and motivation to work hard in their courses. Confidence in one’s engineering ability was discovered to be the best mechanism to promote success in engineering internships, completion of STEM degrees, and pursuit of graduate training in engineering.

Between 2011–2014, four incoming first-year cohorts at UMass Amherst were tracked across the span of 8 years. The study included 150 female students majoring in engineering and 58 junior or senior student mentors (32 females, 26 males). Topics at mentor/mentee meetings included advice on academic coursework; tutoring; developing plans for college and careers including how to find research assistantships and internships; and how to make social connections with other students and student clubs.

In past studies, social psychologists have used intervention strategies such as self-affirmation, growth mindset, and emotion regulation to help curb disparities in objective measures (e.g., student academic performance) related to sex, race, and class. However, students’ subjective experiences in academic spaces (e.g., feelings of belonging, confidence, anxiety, motivation) have not been largely studied.

Conclusions from this study have solidified the researchers’ prediction that mentoring relationships between individuals that share the same marginalized identity will directly benefit mentees by strengthening their motivation, and confidence in their professional abilities.

Another important factor was that mentors were authentic role models to their mentees. These student pairs were “near-peers”, with mentors being just slightly older or more advanced in their level of education. Near-peer relationships have been proven to boost a mentee’s sense of belonging.

The timing of when the mentoring occurred is also significant, a brand-new stage in the student’s life was beginning. Starting off on a positive trajectory during a period of significant transition can help individuals cope with new challenges.  

With mentees meeting with their mentors an average of just four times in total, this intervention had an exceptionally significant impact without a large time commitment or cost to implement.

Wu suggests, “To implement these interventions more widely, universities and departments should aim to create mentorship programs, where juniors and seniors in STEM are paired with first-years, to help ease their transition into the university and the major. It would be important for mentors to receive compensation for their time, which could potentially also be done through course credit. I think the main challenge for institutions would be finding resources to implement these interventions on a larger level (e.g., finding enough female mentors, compensation for mentors and those who run the programs).”

Wu, Thiem, and Dasgupta have laid significant groundwork in the long-term study of peer mentoring, revealing techniques that lead female STEM students on a successful path to graduation.

When asked about potential new directions of study, Wu states, “In terms of new directions, I’d like to explore which types of identity-based mentorship for individuals with multiple marginalized identities is most helpful for long-term retention. We specifically only focused on females in engineering in the current study, but for individuals with multiple marginalized identities in STEM (e.g., Black women), prior studies have found that Black women were more interested in STEM after being exposed to a Black mentor of any gender (Johnson et al., 2019). I’d be interested in studying this further, examining when matching gender or race (or other social identities) yields the most benefits for minority individuals, in longitudinal field experiments.”