March 27, 2024, Durham, NC – Recent research indicates that opportunities for students to explore their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are growing. The Afterschool Alliance’s 2021 America After 3PM Special Report states that among approximately 31,000 randomly selected parents of school-aged children in the United States, 39% reported that their child’s school offered a technology- or engineering-related afterschool program in 2020. This was a significant increase compared to findings from 2014 surveys which indicated that only 30% of schools offered engineering and technology learning opportunities in afterschool programs. Science-related afterschool programs increased from 46% in 2014 to 49% in 2020, and math-related programs increased from 60% to 62%.

The increase in offerings of STEM afterschool programs may reflect schools’ efforts to combat the dwindling numbers of youth pursuing higher education or careers in STEM in recent years. In addition to increased support for STEM learning opportunities amongst schools, there is growing belief amongst parents that STEM programs are beneficial to their children. Parental agreement that afterschool programs help children gain interest and skills related to STEM increased from 65% in 2014 to 76% in 2020.1

Despite growing support for and opportunities in STEM education and activities, there is still a pressing need for more inclusivity and student support in in-school and afterschool STEM educational programs. STEM-related school programs offer opportunities for youth to explore their interests in STEM in a fun and safe environment. Offering mentoring services to youth involved in these programs, in addition to offering STEM learning opportunities and activities, can boost student engagement in STEM by allowing youth to receive emotional support, companionship, and encouragement from a trusted adult. Peer or adult leaders and instructors trained in mentoring, or using a mentoring perspective in their interactions with youth in STEM educational programs, can also positively contribute to the recruitment and retention of young people in STEM.

A “sense of belonging” in STEM fields has long been cited as a factor that drives engagement in STEM and promotes resilience when youth are faced with challenges in STEM. A 2024 study found that post-secondary students believe that feeling safe and comfortable in STEM settings, having a shared passion and interest in STEM with others, having social connections in STEM, feeling a sense of diversity and inclusion in STEM, and receiving support from members of the STEM community are major factors that contribute to a sense of belonging in STEM as students.2 Incorporating inclusive mentoring services in STEM afterschool programs can support each of these factors that contribute to a sense of belonging in STEM amongst young people, and therefore, in turn, contribute to impactful STEM experiences. In addition, a 2024 study that collected data from high school students and faculty that participated in a STEM internship and ambassadorship found that students’ connections to STEM professionals positively influenced their academic engagement, awareness of career opportunities in STEM, identity in STEM fields, social capital, and professional skills.3

Receiving support for interests in STEM is particularly important for subgroups of youth who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM, including girls, youth with a disability, youth living with a low-income family, youth who are or will be first-generation college students, youth who are immigrants or refugees, and youth from a traditionally underrepresented ethnic or racial minority group. Underrepresented groups may be more likely to experience microaggressions or stereotyping as they explore their interests in STEM, which could cause them to feel isolated, ultimately discouraging youth from participating in STEM activities or pursuing a future in STEM. Mentoring can help these youth navigate these challenges and feel a sense of belonging in STEM fields, so they can reap the benefits of STEM education and exploration.

Mentoring Central, a division of iRT, created the Building the Foundation for STEM Mentors web-based training program to support the efforts of organizations that offer mentoring to youth interested in STEM. Building the Foundation for STEM Mentors was strategically designed to help mentoring programs create inclusive environments where youth can explore their interests in STEM by training mentors on the core skills that they need to establish long-lasting and effective relationships with mentees. In addition, the course includes lessons on the importance of STEM mentoring and strategies to support mentees from underrepresented groups in STEM to boost youth engagement and retention in STEM. Mentors learn about the concept of cultural competency to gain awareness of their own cultural background and learn how to understand and consider the culture of their mentees. Mentors deepen their understanding of how their mentees’ culture may impact their interactions and mentoring relationship, and learn actionable strategies to support a mentee who may be experiencing microaggressions.

If you offer mentoring services aimed at boosting mentees’ engagement in STEM and are interested in training your mentors for better outcomes, you can view more information about the Building the Foundation for STEM Mentors course by visiting

  1. Afterschool Alliance. (2021). STEM Learning in Afterschool on the Rise, But Barriers and Inequities Exist. 2021 America After 3PM Report. Afterschool Alliance.
  2. Dost, G. (2024). Students’ perspectives on the ‘STEM belonging’ concept at A-level, undergraduate, and postgraduate levels: an examination of gender and ethnicity in student descriptions. International Journal of STEM Education11(1), 1-33.
  3. Ludwig, C.M., Howsmon, R.A., Stromholt, S., Valenzuela, J. J., Calder, R., & Baliga, N. S.  (2024). Consequential insights for advancing informal STEM learning and outcomes for students from historically marginalized communities. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications,11, (1), 1-20.