How to be a great mentor

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.- Thomas A. Edison

Where does the decision to "try just one more time" originate? What quality keeps someone from giving up for just a little while longer -- just long enough to try one more idea...and then another, and then one more after that?

It's self-efficacy, or the belief that you can exert control over your own motivations, behavior, and social environment.

Self-efficacy begins to develop early in life, and mentors play a critical role in its development. Albert Bandura, a pioneer in the subject of self-efficacy, identified four key areas that contribute to an individual's sense of self-efficacy.

  • Prior or primary experiences - These are early, positive experiences that spark a child's interest in pursuing new challenges. For under-resourced groups, these experiences are often limited, or do not exist at all. For instance, a child from an affluent community will most likely have a school with high quality after-school programs that support robotics. These programs will have mentors who can provide personalized feedback and coaching to the students as well as technical help that will greatly increase the chance of the child having a successful and positive learning experience.
  • Vicarious experiences (modeling by others) - Does the child have a role model who inspires her to explore a new subject or field? Does she see this role model encounter and overcome failure? Such role models are key -- if a child sees someone (she can identify with) overcoming failure, she will be inspired to try the same. (Note: In addition to role models, friends, media and films exert a similar influence.)
  • Verbal Persuasion (Coaching) - Does the child have a coach who can provide specific verbal persuasion and encouragement that "She can do this! She will be successful at this!"? Oftentimes, for children this role is filled by a parent or teacher who knows the child and can provide specific motivation.
  • Physiological Feedback (emotional experiences) - Does the learning experience provide physiological feedback that serves as positive feedback and reinforces interest? Think of winning a tournament or race -- such experiences may be few and far between, but are formative, providing an unforgettable experience that shapes interest and influences behavior in the long-term. Non-athletic events can produce such physiological feedback -- FIRST Robotics was designed specifically to provide the same sort of feedback that sports and entertainment provide, but in an academic context.

Mentors can provide the support and encouragement that are key to developing a child's sense of self-efficacy, from providing verbal encouragement and individualized feedback to modeling persistence and curiosity in the face of failure. This sort of meaningful mentorship involves more than describing your typical day-to-day work.

Over the past decade,
have been studying ways of engaging mentors--particularly in science, technology, and engineering fields--and have identified the following elements that contribute to a successful mentor-mentee relationship.

Applying theory to practice: How do you become a better mentor?

Identifying a learner's prior experiences or creating the primary experience
  • Understand the learner's prior experiences or existing interests. Be aware that if the learner is very young, she may not know what she is interested in.
  • Understand the learner's limitations or potentially negative behaviors so you can provide strategies to overcome them. For instance, many girls are nervous about doing projects in technology or engineering because they are afraid of failure.
  • Start with a fun, small, and simple task that provides a positive experience quickly. For instance, App Inventor is a very easy to use programming language that is visual and allows someone with zero programming knowledge to quickly code little apps and games that do fun things.
  • Set a clear goal that is meaningful to the learner and that aligns with her interests or values. This guided our development of Technovation, a program where middle and high school girls identify a problem in their community and solve it using technology. The goal is not to learn programming (which is simply a tool), but to make a positive change in their environment.
  • Allow the learner to exercise some freedom in making decisions and choices. This increases her investment in the learning.
  • Make sure she has the vocabulary and tools needed to be successful. For instance, if a child literally doesn't know the basic vocabulary of a field, she will not be able to understand the problem or identify a solution. Technovation is a technology entrepreneurship program for girls that provides a scaffolded 12 week curriculum that introduces mobile app development and entrepreneurship to a girl with no prior knowledge of these two fields. Girls learn about paper prototyping, customer surveys, market research, revenue models, cost structures, product pricing, business models etc as well as user interface design, rapid prototyping etc. Without this foundation, they will not be set up for success.
Vicarious experiences

"Most human behavior is learned by observation through modeling" (Bandura,1986)
A learner builds her sense of self-efficacy by watching others model behaviors that lead to success (behaviors like persistence, for instance). While Bandura and others have found that learners pay more or less attention to the role model or mentor depending on the age, competency, or social power of the role model, there are things role models or mentors can do to be more effective. For instance, mentors can make an effort to be warm and welcoming in their interactions. These interactions will be effective if the mentor also shares her vulnerability and strategies she uses to overcome it. For example, a mentor can share that she felt nervous when she had to present to an unfamiliar group or was presented with a new problem. After she shares her fears and hesitations, the mentor needs to then explicitly share the strategies and techniques she used to persist through failure, to stay focused and motivated.

Verbal Coaching
Verbal coaching is "a way of strengthening people's beliefs that they have what it takes to succeed" (Bandura, 1994).
Verbal or social persuasion can provide a small boost in a learner's sense of self-efficacy. As a mentor you will be the verbal coach. You can provide positive reinforcement when a learner is stuck and you can also ask good open-ended questions, encouraging the learner to develop critical thinking skills and find solutions on her own. In itself verbal coaching will not really change a child's mindset or beliefs, but it is an important part of helping the child to stay positive and motivated on a daily basis.

Physiological feedback or the importance of a snack!
A learner' physical and emotional state play a big role in her sense of self-efficacy - at a given time. For example, stress, tension, fatigue, aches and pains, and mood -- all affect a learner's sense of self-efficacy. Baumeister has also done much research to connect hunger to a lack of willpower and self-control.
So as a mentor, it's important to consider the child as a whole. How is she feeling right now? Did she have a good day? Does she need a snack? If she is struggling with a design, then it maybe time to take a little break, get a drink of water and a snack and then return to the troubleshooting.

Getting out into your community

Feb 21 - 27 is the 65th annual Global Engineers Week. This is a great opportunity for engineers all over the world to mentor children in their communities and provide hands-on engineering learning opportunities. As you can see from the list above, it's not easy to be a great mentor and have a lasting impact on a child's life. You may be a great technical engineer in your field, but you may not have all the tools you need to be the best mentor to a girl from an underserved community.

Fortunately, there are some great resources developed by experts just for you: Iridescent's Technical Communication for Lay Audiences (developed in partnership with USC), DiscoverE's trainings for E-week and a video example of professionals like yourself having a very rewarding experience working in their communities.

These trainings will arm you with all the tools you need to make a lasting impact in a girl's life and make the mentoring opportunity more meaningful for everyone. And you might learn a thing or two that you might be able to apply to your own job!

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