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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Online Mentors: Experimenting in Science Class

When scientists volunteered to mentor high school students via e-mail, they put students' long-term earthquake projects—and their teacher's expertise—on more solid ground.

Mentoring is not a new idea. It goes back thousands of years to Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey. Homer tells of a wise old sea captain named Mentor (the goddess Athena in disguise), who gives Odysseus's son, Telemachus, guidance in coping with his father's long absence since the Trojan War.
In modern times, the word mentor has been used to refer to almost any kind of relationship in which a knowledgeable person aids a less knowledgeable person. This aid includes not only training in required skills, but also help in getting along with others in the community and living up to the values and norms of a new role (see, for example, Phillips-Jones 1982, Kram 1985).
Over the past two years, we have been conducting experiments to learn how to orchestrate distant mentoring (or "telementoring") relationships between science students and scientists in the workplace. We use the word telementoring to refer to the use of e-mail or computer conferencing systems to support a mentoring relationship when a face-to-face relationship would be impractical. While some mentoring programs do bring professionals to classrooms on a regular basis (for example, Educational Development Center 1994), or bring students into laboratories or other adult workplaces (for example, Waltner 1992), these programs, unfortunately, have not become widespread. One reason is that they disrupt the work routines of the volunteers.
A growing number of teachers and researchers are taking advantage of online mentoring opportunities (for example, Harris 1996, Durkin and Neils 1996). A good deal remains to be learned about organizing telementoring, but a great variety of initiatives are possible, and more are happening all the time. We believe that it is a promising technique for furthering education reform efforts, such as project-based teaching.
Our research, conducted as part of the CoVis Project (Pea 1993) at Northwestern University, focuses on volunteer telementoring to support middle- and high-school students' work on long-term science projects. Our goal is to develop an audience of scientists who can offer students advice and criticism on an ongoing basis.

Shoring Up Earthquake Research

In Rory Wagner's Earth Science class, students are given a great deal of autonomy in deciding what they would like to research for roughly seven weeks. They have chosen topics ranging from avalanches to volcanoes and have addressed an enormous array of research questions on these topics.
At times, students see this freedom as a mixed blessing. Their first (or second or third) ideas may not be workable given the resources they and their teacher know of, the time available to them, and their teacher's and their own knowledge of the field. In these circumstances, a well-matched mentor can help students sharpen the focus of their research and perhaps help them obtain and analyze data that would otherwise not be available to them.
In the last quarter of the 1995-96 school year, for example, a team of students in Wagner's class decided to do a research project on earthquakes. Wagner matched them with a graduate student in geology (we'll refer to her as Mandy). The following excerpts from the e-mail exchanges illustrate some of the kinds of support—both intellectual and emotional—that a telementor can provide. Thursday, 2 May 1996Dear Mandy,We are juniors at New Trier High School. We are participating in a group project involving earthquakes. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Our project is due on May 17.—Yours Truly, Marilyn and RobertSaturday, 4 May 1996Dear Marilyn and Robert,Hello and welcome! Glad to hear from you. I'm really excited about working with you on this project. Whew! Tight time line, but I'm sure we can make it. What aspect of earthquakes are you interested in? We first need to define the question/info that best grabs your interest, and then we can formulate a research attack plan for the project. Draft a few ideas on paper, then e-mail me back with the info. Once we have a good topic, we can hit the ground running. If you're short on ideas, grab the local paper or the Tribune, or news magazines like Time, Newsweek, or even Discovery. With the recent earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, I'm sure the media has cooked up a few articles with cool graphics.Thursday, 9 May 1996Dear Mandy,I'm sorry about not really corresponding with you as much as I should. I'm starting to get nervous about not completing much on our project so far. The following is the exact question we are researching: Where and why do the largest earthquakes occur? Please write back. Thanks.—Your friend, Robert
At this point in the exchange, Mandy sent Robert and Marilyn a long message suggesting a four-step process to complete their project. Robert was so impressed that he expressed concern over the amount of time that Mandy was taking away from her job. He informed Mandy that their new due date was Monday, May 20, instead of Friday. Mandy responded: Tuesday, 14 May 1996All right! Deadline extensions are always a great feeling. Together we'll make the best of it! As for the four-step plan, the approach is really simple. And if you hit a stumbling block, just e-mail (or, as the deadline nears and you don't have computer access, call). Because I have a small confession to make. I already know the answer to your thesis question. The steps I outlined are the same steps I put my undergraduates through to answer the question in a 50-minute lab. They have it easier because I provide all the necessary references; you have to find them on your own. Next time you get on the computer, e-mail a quick research summary. That way I know where you are and can drop suggestions to make sure your time isn't lost on unimportant sidetracks.Another confession: It doesn't take me that long to write these letters, and part of my job is to help you through research snarls. Here at the university I make myself available to my students at any time (except when Letterman reads his Top Ten list...). If you want me to read your paper before you turn it in, just attach it to an e-mail message and I'll e-mail back suggestions.Talk to you tomorrow, Robert.—-Mandy

Weighing Benefits. . .

Getting this kind of personal attention doesn't necessarily mean that students' projects will be successful. The work is still up to them. Yet they can often come closer to realizing their potential with an expert helping them handle snarls, as Mandy puts it.
Also, as students share work with an adult via telementoring, their stereotypes of the adult working world may be dispelled (Furnham and Stacey 1991). The more complex and interesting the work shared and the more time they have to complete it, the greater the opportunity for rich conversation and learning.
As for teacher Rory Wagner, by involving telementors as advisors in students' projects, he is able to spend more time supporting student research teams in other ways. For instance, while some students are corresponding with their telementors and following up on their suggestions, Wagner can teach others how to conduct Internet searches, or help them graph and interpret numerical data, or revise their project reports. Mentors also offer intellectual resources that can be of value to both the students and teacher. With the help of their telementors, Wagner's students researched relatively obscure subjects that he knows little about (the swimming motions of the plesiosaur, for example). This makes his own work more interesting.

. . .vs. Costs

Like all educational innovations, telementoring has costs as well as benefits. Before starting a telementoring program, one must give careful consideration to these potential costs.
Finding volunteers. On hearing of our telementoring experiments in science classes, the first question many teachers and researchers raise is "Why would a Nobel Prize winner bother writing e-mail to high school students?" The friendlier form is "Where do you find telementors?"
Teachers can recruit telementors from a variety of local workplaces, including both private companies and government agencies. Because our focus is science, we most often have recruited telementors on Usenet newsgroups and listservs dedicated to scientific research. Most of those who have volunteered are either junior members of their fields or senior members in stable jobs. For example, the last breakdown looked like this:

Online Mentors: Experimenting in Science Class - table

 Professionals. . . . . . . . . .30

Master's students. . . . . . .28

University faculty. . . . . . .21

Doctoral students. . . . . .6

Undergraduates. . . . . . .3

Postdoctoral students. . .2

Wagner begins recruiting by posting a paragraph or two to Usenet newsgroups read by geoscientists. He then sends respondents a longer message by e-mail, explaining how his students' projects will be scheduled and organized, the kinds of support they will need, and his expectations regarding the timeliness of responses to their messages. At this point, volunteers may bow out. It's well to keep in mind that the pool of telementoring volunteers is smaller than the work force, and therefore the long-term success of telementoring depends on providing volunteers themselves with a satisfying experience.
Sustaining activities. Once you find a suitable number of volunteers, there is still significant work to do. Our experience has taught us that the biggest challenge in organizing telementoring is fostering a sustained give-and-take over the duration of a student's project. A professional audience may encourage more authentic student work, but this does not happen all at once. Teachers must give telementors enough time and opportunity to review and comment on the work, and there must be a response to their recommendations, preferably before students hand in the work to be graded.
Designing assessments and incentives. Inevitably, some groups or individual students will experience few or none of the possible benefits of telementoring. This could happen for a number of reasons. Mentors and students may not be well matched, or both may have brought expectations to the relationship that can not be satisfied. Ultimately, not all telementors can or will be equally helpful to their mentees, and, to be fair to students, teachers must take this into account in grading.
At the same time, if students and their mentors don't feel responsible to one another in some way, a truly reciprocal telementoring relationship is unlikely to develop. Because a sense of responsibility is usually communicated to students by way of assessment, the teacher may have to informally involve telementors in assessing students' work. Telementors could review some of the milestone products that the teacher requires for a long-term project (for example, proposal documents or drafts of a final report). The teacher could then discuss the telementor's comments with the students.
Maintaining communication. The teacher must find time, either during the school day or at home, to read and respond to the e-mail. This is necessary to clarify program objectives or to advise the telementor about handling specific situations with students. While this can be one of the hidden costs of telementoring, it can also be one of the rewards. Wagner, for example, gets considerable pleasure from exchanging private e-mail with volunteer scientists, and from the knowledge that so many of them appreciate his daily work in the classroom.

Durkin, S., and D. Neils. (1996). The HP e-mail Mentor Program. Online: http://mentor.external.hp.com/.

Educational Development Center, Inc. (1994). Industry Volunteers in the Classroom: Freeing Teachers' Time for Professional Development. Newtonville, Mass.: Educational Development Center, Inc.

Furnham, A., and B. Stacey. (1991). "Work and Employment." In Young People's Understanding of Society. London: Routledge.

Harris, J. B. (1996). The Electronic Emissary. Online: http://www.tapr.org/emissary/.

Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. New York: University Press of America.

Pea, R. D. (1993). "Distributed Multimedia Learning Environments: The Collaborative Visualization Project." Communications of the ACM 36, 5: 60-63.

Phillips-Jones, L. (1982). Mentors and Proteges. New York: Arbor House.

Waltner, J. C. (March 1992). "Learning from Scientists at Work." Educational Leadership 50, 6: 48-52.

D. Kevin O'Neill has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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