Mentoring and education go hand in hand. This October, we will be sharing stories that highlight the power of mentoring to prepare youth for college and career readiness. This article from the Iowa Mentoring Partnership shows how women in STEM are inspiring young girls to become the scientists, technicians, engineers, and mathematicians of tomorrow.
“As I learn more about the statistics of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and particularly engineering, I want to introduce girls to the field. Having awareness of the possibilities is the first step.”
Heidi Kenkel co-founded the Women in STEM mentoring program in Cedar Valley with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in order to encourage in young women a passion for STEM. Originally affiliated with TeamMates Mentoring Program, Women in STEM in Cedar Valley is now a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Iowa and is certified by the Iowa Mentoring Partnership, an affiliate Mentoring Partnership of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
Heidi started volunteering nearly 4 years ago, and she credits her commitment to Women in STEM to positive experiences in her youth. She learned early on that women can and do have an important place in STEM research and work.
“I was very fortunate to have family that encouraged and supported me,” says Heidi. “My dad took me to the college where he taught as a professor and showed me models of space shuttles. I remember thinking, ‘This is beyond cool!’”
“I also have an aunt and an uncle that are both engineers and they were a positive influence on me,” Heidi adds. “I was able to job shadow my aunt for a day while I was in high school and this was very impactful. Seeing where she worked and what she worked on was invaluable.”
Heidi has shared this love of STEM, with her mentee Sarah since they matched through Women in STEM Mentoring in Sarah’s fourth grade year. “I really enjoy seeing her make connections as we do various activities, especially when we worked on the gravity cruiser and successfully completed trials,” Heidi said.
Heidi’s been able to see Sarah grow in her understanding and self-expression: “She was never a reserved girl to begin with, but the insights she’s sharing have expanded.” In addition to a focused learning experience and fun projects, STEM girls are offered the unique space to express themselves and their ideas with other girls and women who share their interests. “These girls are so willing to share their ideas and speak up,” Heidi says. “I really enjoy seeing them make those connections and seeing their faces light up.”
Women in STEM mentoring program began with eight mentors and a handful of fourth and fifth grade girls in 2013. Since then, the program has expanded to 25 mentors, many new girls, and mentees who have stayed since the beginning. This growth is a huge success for Cedar Valley. Some of the mentors are still in training, but Heidi is excited to see how much they’ll add to the program once they start.
“My goal for our Women in STEM mentoring program is to provide girls knowledge that these opportunities are available to them,” Heidi says. “In our program, mentors are engineers, architects, college-level STEM educators, and IT professionals. These girls see professional women from our area working in these fields.”
For STEM mentors and similar programs throughout Iowa, Heidi adds, mentoring is just as relational as it is educational. A good mentor is consistent and invested in her mentee. “Sometimes these girls just need someone to talk to and it doesn’t necessarily need to be related to STEM.” Heidi wants to give Sarah and other STEM mentees the experience of a caring adult investing in their future. “There’s value,” she says, “in having adults in your life who care but don’t have to.”
9 million young people in America are in need of a trusted adult in their lives to guide them in moments big and small. Join the In Real Life movement and become an advocate, make a donation or become a volunteer.