Strengthening STEM Education Through Mentor Connections

An online tool connects students with STEM professionals who serve as student mentors.

by Kathleen Brown, University of Illinois Extension
Illini Bluffs high school, Student Research Showcase
Students from Illini Bluffs High School were selected to present at the statewide Student Research Showcase, a celebration of student-mentor collaboration.

Teachers across the country are adopting problem-based learning (PBL) into their curriculum to promote a deeper, more nuanced understanding of STEM subjects in their students. With a new surge in educational initiatives and developments, this learning trend is becoming more popular in the classroom. Here in the Peoria area, teachers Jennifer Miller from Washington Community High School and Alyssa Walser from Illini Bluffs High School have been implementing PBL and research-based learning through the Mentor Matching Engine.

The Mentor Matching Engine
Developed by the Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI), the Mentor Matching Engine (MME) is an online collaboration tool that connects Illinois high school students and their teachers to STEM mentors. MME allows for long-term engagement with professionals and graduate students in the STEM fields, providing students a line of sight into STEM careers. The platform prioritizes student safety by completing background checks for mentors and placing teachers at the center of the student-mentor relationship.

By providing PBL and deep research opportunities like the Mentor Matching Engine, teachers encourage students to self-direct when faced with a problem. They develop a deeper understanding of the problem and of the research process, which in turn leads to better retention of resources and information.

Like more than 20 other teachers across the state, Miller and Walser each led a classroom through the research process using MME. Their students were connected with mentors from a variety of universities—from the University of Chicago and Northwestern to Dartmouth and Harvard. In addition, industry mentors from companies like Baxter and Caterpillar helped to guide students throughout the process. Over the course of several months, students refined ideas into testable questions, wrote papers, prepared presentations, and most importantly, conducted research.

“Mentor Matching has been a great asset to my students in building confidence with scientific reasoning, communication with peers and mentors, and conducting independent research,” says Walser. “The students have been able to reach beyond the walls of my classroom to study topics of interest to them which may not have been possible without the guidance of an expert. This experience was wonderful for my students and has opened doors for them to possible careers and fields of study that they were not aware of before starting this project.”

“The opportunity to work with a mentor… allows the students to take their projects to the next level,” adds Miller. “[They] help guide and enhance the projects to a level that I would not be able to accomplish on my own.”

A Celebration of Inquiry and Research
The process concluded with ISTI’s Student Research Showcase on March 22, 2019, at MxD (formerly known as the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, housed at UI LABS) in downtown Chicago. This celebration of inquiry and student-mentor collaboration featured students from 11 Illinois schools—including two groups from Washington and two from Illini Bluffs—selected through a three-tiered process of teacher and mentor nominations and student applications. Each student or student group presented their findings to a mentor panel consisting of ISTI’s university and industry partners. They presented on a variety of topics, from engineering to economics to environmental science.

The total program cost is $1,500 per year. To help reduce costs and bring on additional schools, Caterpillar has agreed to offer grants in the amount of $750 each to three area schools for the 2019-20 school year.

To learn how your school might engage with this exceptional programming opportunity, visit or contact Kathie Brown, University of Illinois Extension educator, at PM


I agree that the key point is what Mel King said: "If we want a society and culture that work for everyone, we need innovation in our relationships along with innovation in the STEM fields and STEM education". As an educator my worry is to build caring (educational or not) relationships with my students in order to improve their curiosity and research skills. There are ideas, concepts, and practices in the maker movement that help me to improve the participation of my students in the creation of shared knowledge. I mean the idea of remix, share designs, open tools, the constructionism, the community, the philosophy of DWO, etc. But there are several attitudes that are not helping me at all, for example, the need for the latest super powerful technology gadget as the main concern, the vision of technology like exclusively functional(not poetic) and the focus on the product forgetting that in learning the thing that really matters is the process.

The value of STEM education is now gone. The truth is there are no jobs for the STEM-educated, because they cost too much to employ, in America. There is no point in learning Calculus if, in the end, you cost too much to employ. This is the environment students are facing, today, in America when they leave school. I am STEM-educated and have industry experience. I know what's true. The truth is the value of STEM education in America is now gone. It was here, but now it is gone. America, you are buying technology that will not employ you nor your kids.

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