Image courtesy of Georgia TechBreakThru, a virtual mentoring program funded by the National Science Foundation, pairs science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students with learning or physical disabilities and challenges with mentors who are faculty, staff, or employed in industry. Most of the mentoring takes place in the virtual world Second Life.
“We want students to realize mentoring can be fun and can be done in an environment reminiscent of a game,” said Summer Ienuso, postsecondary recruitment coordinator for the program, which is managed by Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA).
The virtual world, in this case an island, lets users play games, fish, ride bikes, and shop in a marketplace. The program provides a small amount of virtual money that mentees can use to purchase things on the island while interacting with their mentors. Behind the scenes, Ienuso and others supervise and manage the world’s operations to make sure interactions run smoothly.
“The goal of the project is to encourage these students to persist in STEM-related careers and education — either graduating with a STEM degree, or going on to grad school with a STEM focus or pursuing a career in a STEM field,” Ienuso said. “We’re trying to develop a support system for these students to be able to persist and excel.”
Once the mentor/mentee relationship has been initiated via email, the participants can then move on to Second Life, as well as any other media that appeal to them, including Skype, Facebook, Google Hangout, or even telephone.
“We don’t discourage any type of medium,” Ienuso said.
BreakThru is currently accepting applications from students who would like to be paired with a mentor, as well as from graduate-level students who are interested in mentoring students at participating high schools in Gwinnett, Greene, and Clarke counties. Mentors and mentees are paired based on background, education, and whether they have similar disabilities or challenges.
BreakThru is funded by a five-year NSF grant and is a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia; Georgia Perimeter College is also participating. Mentors and mentees receive a stipend for participating and are asked to commit to a year with the program, spending about an hour a week either mentoring or being mentored.