Mentoring in informal settings supports youth identity development

January 01, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Karen Knutson and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Studies of mentoring and informal science programs have shown that adult mentors can play an important role in facilitating the development of positive identities for youth in ISE by providing youth with opportunities to see themselves as capable of knowing, understanding, and doing science (NRC, 2009). Rhodes and Lowe’s (2008) mentoring model describes mentors as supporting youth in three ways: socio-emotionally, cognitively, and in identity development. Rhodes (2005) theorizes that as youth may view mentors as role models, these influences inform their decision making and perceptions of their future possibilities. Deutsch and Spencer (2009) suggest that the approach mentors take to working with youth is an important factor in the success of mentoring relationships in developing positive youth identities. For example, mentors who understand the values and worldviews of the youth with which they work, can help to foster the negotiation of bicultural identities for youth (Liang & West, 2007). Other research supports the view that mentors may be able to offer youth unique resources by drawing from their culturally similar experiences (Liang & West, 2007).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Mentorship in Underrepresented Groups

Though there are few studies of formal mentoring in ISE, current research shows that STEM environments where youth and adult mentors collaborate in the learning process help youth from groups that are historically underrepresented in sciences leverage their everyday experiences and expertises as they participate in STEM activities (c.f. Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009; Brickhouse & Potter, 2001; Brown, 2004; Calabrese Barton, 2003; DeGennaro & Brown, 2009; Gee, 2004). Mentorship through apprenticeship can positively influence how youth conceive of themselves as science-oriented. For example, Stake (2006) found that social encouragement from teachers and parents is an important predictor of youths’ scientific attitudes. These social supports are potentially an important aspect of identity development (Hsu et al., 2009) as they provide a network of resources for youth to see themselves as people who can participate in STEM. Additionally, Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, and Fithian (2009) found that parents can play a variety of roles that support youth learning in science, such as teacher, learning broker, or resource provider. Adults who allow youth to draw on their own discursive patterns, funds of knowledge and their associated identities can help youth breakdown some of the barriers they may feel between their everyday lives and science (Brown, 2004; Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2009).

Cognitive Apprenticeship Model

Through collaboration between adult mentors and youth in a cognitive apprenticeship model, youth can engage in inquiry with guidance (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). In this way, processes are made visible to youth through a variety of authentic contexts that allow students to transfer learning across settings throughout their lives, including informal and formal learning environments. For example, Farland-Smith (2009) found that girls who worked “side by side” with scientists in a community of practice developed and expanded their understandings and positive perceptions of scientists and doing science. This process has the potential to allow youth to deepen their participation in a cultural community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). It has led some researchers examine mentorship programs where students work alongside scientists during a summer camp or internship in a laboratory. These studies suggest that mentorships between scientists and youth with opportunities for critical reflection can lead to deeper levels of understanding of science and scientists’ work (Rahm, 2007), open up youths’ interest in science, and understanding of careers in science (Bell et al., 2003), and can help undo student’s narrow notions of science and scientists’ work (Barab & Hay, 2001; Bleicher, 1996).

Mentorship between Graduate Students and Youth

Bruce, Bruce, Conrad and Huang (1997) proposed yet another form of mentorship, between graduate students and youth in school. Throughout the academic school year, graduate students may either assist a teacher with science projects or offer a science club in the afterschool hours. They argue that graduate students may be even better role models and mentors of youth than scientists given their age yet also on-going presence over time which makes possible the development of relationships between youth and the graduate students that matter. As shown by Richmond and Kurth (1999), the role students play in such mentorship projects are crucial as well. The authors argue that such collaborations make available resources that can then be picked up by youth and mobilised for their identity work in science. Yet, access to the resources is tied in complex ways to the roles youth get to take on in such mentorships and science practices over time. Communities that matter help students move from the periphery to the center in supportive relationships with ongoing feedback and moments for reflection upon their work and role in the community


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