The value of STEM mentors

How did you choose your career? How did you know what college to go to? How did you learn what to do when you felt like giving up? Who did you learn from when you were growing up?

Everybody needs a mentor, someone who can help you through big questions like these. For my very fortunate sixth graders, they have gotten to learn from some of the most amazing scientists from around the world. My name is Bridget Heneghan and I teach 6th grade math and science at a Chicago public school. This is my third year in the Letters to a Pre-Scientist program, and every year I continue to be amazed at the life-forming connections made between my students and their pen pals.


This year, our pen pals wrote around certain themes for each letter. This was an amazing experience because not only were my students able to learn from their own pen pal, but they were able to compare it to their classmates’ pen pals. We were able to have meaningful conversations about life choices, the relationship between level of education and salary, and how trapdoor spiders are like gophers because they dig holes.


For one letter opening day, my students learned all about their pen pal’s college experience. We, of course, had to go over a few things first: what a GPA is, how a graduate degree is different than a bachelor’s degree, and that you can get a doctorate without being a medical doctor. Many of the students were amazed by the number of years their pen pals had to be in school… and how many years they, themselves, had left. In their letters, they learned about the duty of a TA and what a dorm room is like. The students did a little research about their pen pal’s alma mater and created a pennant to show it off. We also spent some time exploring colleges that they would be interested in. “How will I know what school to choose?” “How can you tell which ones are better?” “Why did my pen pal go here and not Alabama?” Although they do not (and should not) have all of the answers right now, many of our students will be first generation college graduates and these conversations have a lasting impact.


Since they are sixth graders, not all conversations were as deep as those described above. Our lovely pen pals were also barraged with questions like, “How old are you?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Have you ever eaten a jalapeno pepper?” “Doesn’t helium taste funny?” All of these questions are, as you may imagine, equally important to twelve-year-olds. But my students are lucky enough to have mentors that can answer both questions about their favorite Fortnite character, and bigger questions how to achieve their dreams.


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