The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a mentor as a trusted counselor or guide. After speaking with our expert panel about mentoring programs in Harford and Cecil counties, I95 BUSINESS discovered this definition falls woefully short of describing the impact of pairing subject matter experts with students eager to follow in their footsteps.
This month, four experts weigh in on how to support mentoring in your business and why time invested in mentoring youth is a wise investment: Mentors David Brown, Ph.D., Consulting Engineer, MITRE Corporation and Institute for Defense Analyses and retired Army Senior Executive Service; and Tim Palmer, Group Leader Specializing in Geographic Information Systems Chesapeake Environmental Management, Inc.; as well as Mentoring Program Coordinators Sarah Voskuhl, Program Specialist, Science and Math Academy, Aberdeen High School; and Jennifer Carroll, Outreach Specialist, Community and Educational Outreach Program, U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, RDECOM.
Scientists Shape the Experience
Engineer and retired senior executive Army civilian David Brown sounds almost giddy when he describes projects undertaken by Aberdeen High School Science and Math Academy students he has mentored.
One student, “phenomenally artistic, musically inclined,” merged arts and engineering when he programmed a computer with the harmonies and personality traits of Johann Sebastian Bach. Under Brown’s tutelage, the student programmed the computer to compose music that sounded like Bach.
Another one of Brown’s students explored alternative energy. The student understood the science behind why phonograph records produce sound when the needle moves within the grooves: when crystals are distorted they create an electrical current. The student wondered if electric current could be produced if this crystalline material were produced as flags and placed on the rooftops of houses.
“No sun, no ugly turbines, no bird kills, no irritating the neighbors,” Brown says. “To my knowledge, this had never been thought of before. It worked.”
A third student drew upon his knowledge of new 3D printing techniques and of capacitors used in all electronic devices.
“Capacitors are not easy to make and most methods are hard to control. A capacitor is of metal, a nonmetal and a metal,” Brown explains. “The student thought, ‘Why not 3D print a capacitor?’ He did. This also is research that has never been done before, and the exciting thing is, it is being done by high school seniors.”
Tim Palmer’s mentoring experience is different, but equally exciting. The students he mentors support and expand research that is part of Palmer’s work as a group leader specializing in geographic information systems at Chesapeake Environmental Management.
Whereas Brown views his role as a manager of expectations and arbiter of sound scientific method, Palmer harnesses the energy, creativity and inquisitiveness of students to enhance and expand projects he works on for real-world clients who come to CEM for GIS services.
Last summer, Palmer supervised students enrolled in Joppatowne High School’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program to use GPS to map public utilities for the city of Havre de Grace. This school year, a Science and Math Academy (SMA) student is adding a GIS layer for storm water management.
“The CEO of CEM, Stephanie Hau, fully supports all our endeavors with mentoring and community outreach. I am thrilled to volunteer my time as well as CEM resources to support this effort,” Palmer says. About the commitment, “One week, it may be six hours, one week, it may be nine. My student comes to CEM to work mostly.”
Palmer described the student’s work as crucially important. He says, “The task is to achieve high accuracy … water inlets for storm water runoff, drainage areas, looking at properties to determine where to put filtration systems to clean water before it gets to the Bay.”
About the experience, he adds, “The kids in the SMA are phenomenal. It’s inspiring to see the level of determination. Anything I can do to foster that determination, I am willing to do.”
Programs Vary Among Businesses
Just as mentoring experiences differ, school needs and how businesses set up infrastructure to support a mentoring program vary widely.
Take the Army’s Research Development Engineering Command’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. Jennifer Carroll, an outreach specialist in ECBC’s Community and Educational Outreach Program, describes a formal program backed by Partnership in Education agreements negotiated with the schools.
“The agreements allow us to focus on Cecil and Harford counties and provide a mechanism to exchange materials,” Carroll says.
ECBC has at least 20 active mentors as of press time. In Harford County, eight scientist-mentors work with Edgewood Middle School’s A.M. Academic Club, six with Science and Math Academy students, two with Bel Air High School’s Biomedical Sciences Program, one with Joppatowne High School’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program, and one with the Army’s Youth Services program. In Cecil County, one engineer-mentor works with students at Bohemia Manor High School, with more gearing up to mentor Cecil County students as the second half of the school year commences.
Additionally, ECBC sponsors an Adopt-a-SME (subject matter expert) initiative to link teachers with scientists to ensure students have access to real-world applications of the STEM principles they learn in the classroom.
While certain CEM employees are expected to mentor and such relationships are nurtured onsite and during the workday, ECBC asks interested SMEs to check their work requirements through their supervisors before they can participate. Although some situations permit students to work onsite, most ECBC mentorships involve scientists meeting students at their schools.
Mentors Crucial at SMA
Sarah Voskuhl is the program specialist who makes mentorships happen for students at the Science and Math Academy. She is in her third year of recruiting the 50 or so mentors needed each year to work with senior students who are required to devise, research, complete and report on what many experts call graduate-level capstone projects to graduate.
“It is a struggle every time we do it. We have a core group who come back year after year, but there are work movements, post transfers, people move,” Voskuhl says. “Sometimes their boss changes and that person says no to the time commitment.”
Making a good match is critical to the success of any mentor-student relationship. “It’s project dependent. Some students go to a mentor’s worksite, others email back and forth, with the mentor coming to the school once a week. With engineering projects, a mentor can tell a student what to do. They don’t need to watch them. With chemistry, the mentor needs to be there in the lab.”
Pardon the pun, but Voskuhl has making these matches down to a science. Each spring, she hosts a Mentor Night, which she describes as speed dating for mentors. Potential mentors set up booths, and students rotate to chat about themselves, their research interests and what they think they need in terms of support. At the end, students and mentors fill out interest forms describing whom they think they might like to work with. Voskuhl makes matches from there. This year’s Mentor Night is scheduled for March 21, 6:30-8:30pm at AHS. RSVPs are expected by Feb. 25. Interested scientists can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To establish a company-mentoring program, Carroll and Voskuhl offer this advice:
• Identify your organizational SMEs whose expertise should be shared and who have a passion to excite others
• Involve leadership to ensure mentoring program goals are in sync with organizational objectives
• Review legal, security and safety concerns before students are invited onsite
• Be willing to give time to the student during the workday
• If an individual or a company makes a commitment to a student, honor it
To potential mentors, Palmer says, “If you think you might like to mentor, try it. Do it for the kids, and you might find you get as much out of it as they do.” I95