Are You a STEM Pro? Here’s Why You Should Mentor




A few months ago, a high school student posted this request twice on one of PTC’s Internet forums:

Is there anybody who would be willing to schedule a video call with my robotics team to go through some skills in PTC Creo Parametric? Any help would be appreciated.

He wasn’t alone. School STEM programs everywhere need mentors to help as future engineers craft robots and racecars for competition.

“It can be very hard to find people to come and assist,” says Bob Payne, coach and mentor of Utica, NY’s RoboSpartans—a high school competition robotics team. In fact, to find help for his team, he networked until he found a PTC employee two hours away who could spend a day answering his groups’ questions.

John Sheehan, PTC, traveled to Utica to talk PTC Creo and PTC Mathcad with robotics students and mentors from throughout the region in August 2015.

Even with online tutorials and textbooks, kids still need help understanding how to make the most of their design tools, how to build a structure that won’t fall apart, and proper gearing.

“Some teams out there don’t have any engineering expertise available,” says Payne. “In fact, parents from other teams sometimes ask me ‘where are the directions for building these robots?’”

What mentors give

Of course, there are no directions, and it’s generally up to the students to learn how to put one together. The mentor’s job, as such, isn’t necessarily to provide all the answers but to guide students toward them.

According to FIRST, an international not-for-profit robotics program with more than 50,000 students participating, mentors:

  • Work with teams in the mentor’s areas of expertise, for as little as one team meeting or as many as all of them.
  • Provide valuable support and serve as a resource in his or her area of specialty.
  • Direct the process, without providing the solution.
  • Act as a coach, teacher, motivator, and facilitator.

Payne adds that in many cases, teams just want to talk to an expert once. It can be in person, or via Google Hangouts or Skype.

What mentors get

Volunteers who already mentor love the experience. Here’s what they say:

It’s rewarding that you get to share the knowledge you have and watch the kids grow. –Damien Blanchard

My goal is to make one student feel they’re part of a bigger group, that they contribute and that their ideas are of value. The reason I mentor is that I want to give kids a chance to be part of something. –Mark Ivey

What excites me is when you see the lights go on. A kid finds a solution to a problem and really gets it! –Bob Payne

Still it’s not all warm fuzzies and making the world a better place for future generations. In a recent article, Al Dean points out that mentoring is also a way to challenge yourself.

“You find yourself thinking things through, pondering why you do things a particular way,” writes Dean.  “You’re actually forced to think through why you do what you do, how you do it, and somewhere in the middle, new things pop out.”

You should mentor, too

If you’re reading this blog, odds are very good that you have knowledge a kid/aspiring engineer needs.  Can you help students explore options for a better universal drive train, materials, or digital prototyping? It may be your turn to give back to the community.

If you’re ready to help, consider these opportunities:

  • For Kindergarten through high school robotics, visit USFIRST.org’s Volunteer page, and follow the suggested action plan.
  • Prefer racecars to robots? Explore SAE’s collegiate racing program where you can Volunteer for a weekend at next year’s event in Lincoln, Nebraska.

By the way, there’s good news for the student who asked for help at the beginning of this story. A forum member from the same town saw the request and volunteered to help. They plan to talk later this semester.

You can learn more about PTC Academic Program here.