The Effectiveness of a One-year Online Mentoring Program for Girls in STEM
An online mentoring program in Germany supports girls’ development in STEM, with greater reach and similarly positive results when compared to traditional in-person mentoring.
Though the gender gap in academic achievement in STEM has been closing, a large gap remains in STEM participation beyond secondary school. By university, women make up less than one-fifth of STEM majors in German universities—as low as 11% in electrical engineering. The STEM gap results in fewer and lower-paying professional opportunities for women, and chronic labor shortages for German STEM sectors. Previous research shows that girls begin losing interest in STEM around age 11, a trend that worsens throughout secondary school. Negative stereotypes and socialization may discourage girls and limit their perception of the academic choices that are available to them. One way to combat this issue is by having women who are already established in STEM fields mentor girls – which offers a multifaceted approach to expand their STEM choices by introducing role models, building support systems, and providing knowledge about STEM topics and opportunities. Despite its potential, traditional mentoring has been hampered by logistical challenges in scheduling, transportation, and mentor availability. Online platforms suggest a way to overcome these barriers, expanding the reach of mentoring relationships and community networks. In this study, the authors evaluate the effectiveness of online mentoring for girls’ STEM development. Using a structured one-year program with individually matched mentors, frequent email interaction, and an online community, they measured short and long-term effects on girls’ knowledge, confidence, interest, and activities in STEM. By randomly assigning program applicants to either the mentoring cohort or a waiting list, they were able to compare girls who were mentored against a control group of girls with similar initial interest in STEM.
A one-year online mentoring program produced beneficial effects in 6 out of 7 measures of girls’ STEM development—including stable self-confidence and increased intentions to pursue STEM—relative to girls who had similar STEM interests but received no mentoring.
- The program led to short- and long-term increases in career intentions and knowledge of career paths: Girls in the mentoring program reported significantly increased interest in pursuing STEM-related electives (from 3.48 at start to 3.82 at mid-point and 3.84 at end) and increased self-assessed knowledge of available academic and career paths (from 34.95 at baseline to 39.06 at mid-point and 39.68 at end) over the course of program.
- The program also led to short-term increases in STEM activities: Girls in the mentoring program reported a marginally significant short-term—but no long-term—increase in STEM activities (from 2.80 at start to 2.91 at midpoint and 2.89 at end) over the course of the program.
- The program led to preventive benefits in topical knowledge, self-confidence, and competencies: Girls in the mentoring program reported stable self-assessed knowledge of STEM topics, confidence in their own STEM abilities, and self-assessed STEM competencies—measures that declined significantly among girls who were not in the program.
- The program had no effect on STEM interest: There was no significant effect of the online mentoring program on self-assessed interest in STEM domains relative to the waiting list control.
In short, online mentoring offers a promising alternative to logistically challenging in-person mentoring programs, with small but positive effect sizes comparable to or better than past studies of in-person mentoring programs. Small effect sizes can lead to substantial long-term benefits, and may be increased by future attention to more concrete mentoring goals and planning.
Out of 1,054 girls (age 11 to 18 years old) from German college-preparatory schools who applied to the CyberMentor 2010-2011 program, 312 took part in the study by answering voluntary questionnaires. Of this group, 208 girls were randomly selected to participate in the program, while 104 were assigned to a waitlist control, allowing them to participate the following year. All 312 girls answered an online questionnaire at three points: before, halfway through, and after the mentoring year. The girls reported on their participation in STEM activities (6 items, 4-point scale); self-assessed knowledge of STEM topics (100-point scale), self-assessed knowledge about university studies and jobs in STEM (100-point scale), interest in STEM domains (100-point scale); self-assessed STEM competencies (100-point scale); confidence in their own STEM abilities (4 items, 6-point scale); and academic elective intentions to pursue studies or careers in STEM (4 items, 6-point scale). The online mentoring program matched each girl with a personal mentor—a STEM college student or professional—based on both STEM and personal interests. Interaction included at least one email per week on STEM topics, with support and supervision from a 10-person team. The program’s online community provided personal webpages, forums supporting topical discussions and project collaboration, weekly chat sessions focused on a particular topic in STEM, an information library, and a monthly online magazine.