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Of my core memories from college, many were non-academic in nature. One however, stands out, and involved science classes I took in my freshman year.

I remember sitting in a large lecture hall for my physics class. The wooden seats were uncomfortable, and any movement would cause them to squeak. The air in the lecture hall smelled musty with a hint of chalk dust. My professor had just finished going over a practice problem which filled the entire chalkboard in front of him, and then he pulled down another clean chalkboard and introduced the next topic: nuclear half-lives. I let out a large sigh as dread formed in the pit of my stomach. Nuclear half-lives were covered in many of my college science courses, and I struggled every time. It was like the universe was trying to tell me I did not belong in science.

I also remember sharing with my mother, who happened to have graduated with a major in nuclear medicine, how inadequate I felt in my college science classes. She was able to give me a pep talk to get my head back in the game. I do not remember her exact words, but she essentially told me that although science can be hard, that did not mean that I didn’t belong. She was able to keep me on the path to a STEM field, even when I was ready to call it quits.

Fast-forward 20 years, I am now a high school chemistry teacher who enjoys teaching about nuclear half-lives! I couldn’t tell you what confused me so much at the time, but I will never forget the feeling of dread it gave me. My life’s path could have been drastically different had it not been for the mentorship of my mother — another woman who had successfully majored in science. Many people gave me advice and encouragement throughout my science journey, but it was the advice from other females in science, like my mother’s, that made the most impact.

Meeting a real need

I now teach chemistry in a rural high school, where Hispanic students make up the largest minority population. While analyzing school data, I discovered my Hispanic students had a large achievement gap in STEM courses. While our student body is 18% Hispanic, this group only accounts for 4 % of our upper-level STEM classes. What’s more, our data indicate that the number of our Hispanic students who were attending post-secondary education had dropped to zero. Clearly, our Hispanic population was not interested in pursuing STEM careers. I was left wondering if it was because they could not see themselves in the profession, and felt they didn’t belong.

I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences in STEM, and how it had been female STEM mentorship who helped me persevere. For me, mentorship in the STEM field had been a powerful influence, and many educational research studies supported my feelings and experiences. 1,2,3,4,5

One of the most greatest impacts of having a female STEM mentor was that when the science coursework got tough, I did not blame it on my gender. Knowing my female STEM mentor had made it through similar coursework, I attributed the difficulty to how the class was taught — and not because I did not belong in the field. Knowing firsthand how important mentorship was in my personal experience, I wanted to pay it forward by providing a similar experience for my Hispanic students. But how could I start, since I am not Hispanic myself?

Establishing mentorship

I started by looking at college organizations supporting underrepresented students in STEM, hoping to find something especially suited for Hispanic and LatinX students. Eventually I found a local university’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) chapter. After discussing my Hispanic students’ needs, we were able to work together to form my school’s first Hispanic STEM extracurricular club, which we called Puentes a STEM (in English, Bridges in STEM).

Membership in Puentes a STEM was exclusively for LatinX students at my high school. Every week, we met virtually with a LatinX SHPE member from the university. Each meeting lasted about an hour and would typically feature the SHPE members discussing their high school experience, journey to college, college majors, and career aspirations. The SHPE members did not tutor my students or help with homework.

Everyone in the meeting was LatinX — except for me, serving as the high school’s adult supervision. SHPE members would effortlessly switch between English and Spanish to help include any English Language Learner (ELL) students. Each week we focused on a new LatinX college student’s experience, resulting in my high school students being exposed to numerous engineering fields.

Over time, some SHPE members regularly checked back in with the students, and we had many enjoyable conversations. They also took my students on virtual tours of the research labs they were working in. Through these experiences, my LatinX students met friendly Principal Investigators and learned about a variety of ongoing research, ranging from bioplastics and cow manure management to solar panels!

In short, the SHPE members turned into mentors for my LatinX students. The informal conversations and with the SHPE mentors led to the planning of virtual field trips to research labs on campus, hands-on activities, and a financial-aid presentation for prospective first-generation college students.

Figure 1. Students use a catapult to launch a small ball into a cup during a club meeting.

In addition, some SHPE mentors were able to demonstrate topics related to their own STEM major by conducting hands-on activities with my high school students. Since our meetings were virtual, each SHPE mentor would let me know before the meeting what supplies I should secure for my LatinX students.

For example, these mentors showed my LatinX students how to experiment with various materials and processes, such as building sturdy bridges using straws and paper, or making simple motors using batteries and wires. We were even able to secure university funds to purchase $100 Arduino Starter Kits for SHPE volunteers to use to teach my students how to build and program a catapult.

We also reached out to the university’s multicultural center staff, who were able to help us host our first-ever virtual Noche de Ciencia (“Science Night”) for the LatinX families of students in our Puentes a STEM club. At this event, parents were able to meet many of the SHPE college students, and also learn from representatives of the multicultural center (in both English and Spanish) about the college application process and financial aid for first-generation students.

Meaningful outcomes

The Puentes a STEM club has positively impacted my students, their families, and my teaching. At the end of the last school year, I surveyed the club students to gauge impact. In the surveys, students shared the positive impact of developing relationships with SHPE mentors. One student stated they had become more interested in college after learning there would be a Hispanic community in college that they could better connect with. Another student had been failing chemistry before she joined the club. By the end of the school year, however, she had earned a grade of B+. “Working with the engineering college students during Puentes a STEM meetings,” she wrote, “helped me see that I could go to college if I focused.” Still another student said that participating in Puentes a STEM had encouraged her to take an upper-level STEM class the next school year, because the SHPE mentors “believed in me.” Other members of Puentes a STEM commented that our club had positively impacted them, and made them “excited,” “looking forward to attending class,” and “interested in participating in Puentes a STEM next year.”

Through Puentes a STEM, I saw how important familia (family) is in the LatinX culture. Listening to the conversations during Puentes a STEM, I learned that many SHPE mentors felt guilty about leaving their family to go to college. In fact, many of my LatinX students shared that they had experienced the same feelings, which made them hesitant about pursuing college. I hoped inviting families to the Noche de Ciencia would help start family conversations about attending college. According to an email from one parent, their family found the event very informative, as they didn’t realize “there is much support for first-generation families” at colleges. Families also appreciated talking with individuals at the university who were fluent in Spanish, making it easier to understand and ask questions.

Puentes a STEM also helped me in my role as a teacher. As we waited for the SHPE mentors to join our virtual meetings, I had wonderful informal conversations with my LatinX students. They told me it is hard to “turn off” thinking in Spanish during their classes.

The Puentes a STEM students helped me modify my notes graphic organizer to include a column for new vocabulary words in Spanish. We decided to add a “You Do You” column to the graphic organizer so LatinX students had space to write in Spanish while other students could describe the vocabulary in their own words, making it flexible for everyone. After making this modification, the results of a class survey indicated LatinX students found writing in Spanish helped them learn. By giving students the option to take notes in Spanish, I improved the equity in my teaching by giving the level of support students needed to be successful.

Being the only non-LatinX person at the Puentes a STEM club meetings, I learned about cultural experiences outside of my own that I was able to weave into my instruction. For example, my LatinX students and their SHPE mentors often bonded by talking about traditional Latin foods, and that’s how I learned about the traditional Mexican sauce called mole (pronounced MOH-lay in Spanish).

During my regular chemistry unit on moles, I have students determine the number of molecules of sugar, salt, and chocolate in different food items, and then allow them to eat the food items they tested. One goal of this activity is for students to see the connections between their everyday lives and chemistry.

So, after learning about mole sauce through Puentes a STEM, I decided to include mole as a food option during the activity. I would never have seen the connection between the Mexican sauce and the mole unit without the food conversations I had during Puentes a STEM. My LatinX students were excited to see mole as part of the lesson, and enjoyed explaining their favorite mole sauces to their LatinX and non-LatinX classmates. The activity promoted an appreciation of Hispanic food.

Inspiring others

The mentoring occurring through the Puentes a STEM club was a positive experience for everyone involved. Finding mentors for the underrepresented groups in STEM at your school is not impossible. Start by tapping into university resources. I have also had success finding contacts through local businesses, alumni, and college friends. I have even found professionals using Twitter hashtags and retweets. Below is a list of a few organizations you can reach out to.

I have found that many students and professionals in the STEM field would love to give back by talking to a class or a group of students about their experiences in STEM. Since most professionals, students, and schools are proficient with virtual meetings, the groups you connect with do not need to be within driving distance. Nor do you need to start a full-blown club to make a difference. Start small with a guest speaker, and leverage the power of virtual meetings.

I started Puentes A STEM by emailing the officers of my local university’s SHPE organization asking for LatinX STEM majors to talk about their experiences with my Hispanic students. Organically it grew into an official club involving mentorship, virtual field trips, hands-on activities, and financial aid information, all of which were due to the excitement and dedication of the participants.

STEM mentorship is powerful, especially for underrepresented students in science. Puentes A STEM was able to get more Hispanic students interested in taking upper-level science courses and consider pursuing STEM majors in college. With a few emails, you could find someone to talk to your classes and be a familiar face for your students. Start small, and who knows? It might just grow into something big!


  1. Balasubramanian, R.; Nostrand, F. V.; Fleenor, M. C. Programmatic innovations that accord with the retention of women in STEM careers. Frontiers in Education. 2023, 8, p. 1018241.
  2. Barlow, A. E.; Villarejo, M. Making a difference for minorities: Evaluation of an educational enrichment program. Journal of research in science teaching. 2004, 41(9), 861-881.
  3. Byars-Winston, A. M.; Branchaw, J.; Pfund, C.; Leverett, P.; Newton, J. Culturally diverse undergraduate researchers’ academic outcomes and perceptions of their research mentoring relationships. International journal of science education. 2015, 37(15), 2533-2554.
  4. Estrada, M.; Hernandez, P. R.; Schultz, P. W. A longitudinal study of how quality mentorship and research experience integrate underrepresented minorities into STEM careers. CBE—Life Sciences Education. 2018, 17(1), article 9.
  5. Hernandez, P. R.; Patterson, M.; Nyanamba, J. M.; Bloodhart, B.; Adams, A. S.; Barnes, R.; Fischer, E. V. (2023). Webs of Science: Mentor Networks Influence Women’s Integration into STEM Fields. Front Ecol Environ. 2023, doi:10.1002/fee.2666.