From the beginning, Mea Bowen knew she had found an instant friend in Furman student Lauren Pinion ’17.
They both enjoy playing soccer on weekends and share a mutual love of pie.
“I thought to myself, I’m going to have a lot of fun with Lauren,” Bowen, a sixth-grader at Northwest Middle School, said of her new mentor and pal.
The hour they work together each week in the school library flies by, whether they’re tackling Bowen’s science homework or talking about the everyday challenges of being a pre-teen.
Similar stories are being told in five schools and after-school centers across Greenville County as Furman students work closely with 45 local middle school students.
The STEM Mentors program, now in its fifth year, has expanded to serve students at Hughes Academy of Science and Technology, Legacy Charter Middle School, Berea Middle School, Frazee Dream Center, and for the first time this year, Northwest Middle School.
The service-learning program, now collaboratively funded by the National Institutes of Health through an INBRE award to South Carolina, and Furman through the Office of Integrative Research in the Sciences, was initially created in fall 2008 with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the nation’s largest private supporter of science education. It pairs Furman students, mostly science majors, with teacher-selected fifth- through eighth-graders for one-hour weekly mentoring sessions.
Since the program’s inception, more than 175 Furman students have participated (the majority of these students volunteering for multiple semesters) recording more than 2,500 hours of mentoring with students.
“We want to enable students to share their love and enjoyment of science with others,” said John Kaup, Furman’s Coordinator of Science Education.
The program also fills a crucial need, he explained. “If students fall behind in math and science at this time—even if they have tremendous natural ability—they may never catch up,” Kaup said.
Frank Powell, principal at Legacy Charter Middle School, has welcomed Furman students to his campus nearly every day of the week for the past three years.
“It has been an excellent partnership,” Powell said. “Furman students help our students with academic achievement and are positive role models.”
Powell said he hopes the Furman students’ presence will steer more middle school students toward college. “It is helpful to show kids like ours what a college student looks like,” he said. “They can also tell them what it takes to get to college.”
Charlotte Shy ’17, a biology and neuroscience major from Nashville, has been working this semester with eighth-grader Breanna Johnson, 14.
With 30 other students in many of her classes, “she helps me learn a lot more than I would by myself,” said Johnson.
While they stay busy with homework and studying for tests and quizzes, Johnson said they always take time for “chill stuff.”
“It’s not just drilling facts into her head,” said Shy. “I want to be her friend too.”
Richard Martin Graybill, ’12, spent two hours a week for two academic years as a mentor at Berea Middle School. He said the positive results he experienced through the program kept him going.
“Once there was a mutual trust formed, there was a noticeable transformation in each mentee. I saw improvement in test scores, and they also started to take pride in their school work,” he said. “Because you work with the same student week in and week out, the mentees see that you are also invested in their education and future.”
At the end of the STEM Mentors program, mentees visit campus for Furman ENGAGED! where they visit labs, learn about science research, and have lunch with their mentor. “One of my mentees even said that it is now his goal to attend Furman and stand right where I was giving a presentation on his own research,” Graybill said.
Graybill, now a pre-doctoral student in Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has started an outreach program modeled after Furman’s program. With the help of a grant from the American Chemical Society, graduate students are teaching science lessons at a local elementary school using small handheld microscopes.
“While this program has demonstrated higher test scores and increased self-esteem and accountability for those being mentored, seeing Furman students (like Richard) continue (and expand) this STEM focused outreach beyond their Furman experience is perhaps the greatest testament to the program’s success,” said Kaup.
For Pinion and other undergraduate students just starting their education at Furman, the program has even provided some unexpected encouragement toward future careers.
“(Lauren) should be a science teacher,” said Bowen. “She makes me feel smarter than I already am.”