What is Near-Peer Mentoring?

23 Jan 2023

STEM students and professionals alike benefit from DoD STEM-supported mentoring programs

Thousands of students have benefited from a near-peer mentoring program founded by scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, with financial support from DoD STEM. Army-sponsored college students serve as near-peer mentors to help teach biology to middle and high school students during summer programs held on Army posts and at local colleges and universities such as Morgan State University and Bowie State University.

Partner Spotlight: Near-Peer Mentoring Program

Dr. Deborah Yourick and Near-Peer Mentor Emonie Hall are featured in the DoD STEM Spotlight Series on near-peer mentoring.

A mentor is a trusted advisor, usually someone older and established in a career coaching someone younger who is just starting out in the same or similar career. A mentor shares their experiences and often advises a protégé toward career success. Near-peer mentoring turns this concept into two-way learning opportunities for both participants. Near-peer mentors are usually within five- to seven-years in age and early in their education and career journeys. DoD STEM has been at the forefront of near-peer mentoring in STEM education and supports a variety of programs through the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) and Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) funding paths.

Dr. Deborah Yourick, now director of science education and fellowship programs at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), wrote a grant in the early 2000s for a National Institutes of Health Science Partnership Award to build a WRAIR program for the surrounding underserved communities after discovering how effective the near-peer approach was in the classroom.

“Direct peer mentoring in the classroom hadn't worked like we wanted it to – the students didn't necessarily get along and we found that they didn't learn from one another,” said Yourick. “But by pairing students with someone just slightly ahead them and often from the same backgrounds, near-peer mentors were listened to and respected because they had recently had the same experiences. The students felt at home and that they could talk to the near-peer mentors. And we found that they really learned science!

By pairing students with someone just slightly ahead them and often from the same backgrounds, near-peer mentors were listened to and respected because they had recently had the same experiences.

Dr. Deborah Yourick, Director of Science Education and Fellowship Programs at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research

Today Dr. Yourick leads all science education and fellowship programs for WRAIR, from 7th grade students to scientists well established in their careers. Alongside her 33-year career in neuropharmacology, Yourick has dedicated herself to expanding access to science for all. One program is Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science (GEMS) which is based on near-peer mentor-led experiential learning and now serves over 3000 students at Army labs nationwide, including 1000 participants at WRAIR during summer 2022. GEMS is part of the Army Educational Outreach Program and more information can be found at www.usaeop.com.

Army-supported college students serve as near-peer mentors to help teach biology to middle- and high-school students during summer programs, whether held on Army posts or at local colleges and universities. In addition to receiving stipends and sometimes college credit, the college students are also mentored by working scientists at the Army’s own laboratories – a unique and dynamic experience. The program works to build strong STEM learning connections, or ecosystems, in communities – linking school districts and colleges, universities, local businesses and Army research labs.

Emonie Hall is a WRAIR-supported near-peer mentor who leads labs at Bowie State University and her alma mater, Morgan State University, both of which partner with DSEC to provide hands-on STEM learning opportunities to area students. “I think what surprised me the most is when you really get to know the students and you create a bond with them, you're like, ‘Wow.’ Just the way they think, their questions, the way different ideas spark other things in their minds, and just how creative they are! No group is the same. I think the great thing about mentoring is that no mentee is the same. Whatever their situations are or their personalities or how they interpret anything…just hearing their perspective is really amazing.”

CollegeVine, an online college advising website, has outlined 12 benefits of near-peer mentoring:

  1. Increased access to career information
  2. Near-peer mentors can share recent experiences
  3. Someone closer in age could feel more approachable
  4. Because a near-peer mentor is both a mentor and a peer, both parties can share relevant information with each other
  5. Similar backgrounds increase the possibility of bonding
  6. Meeting people who have recently tackled a similar educational path can increase student confidence and self esteem
  7. Near-peer mentors seek to build relationships built on trust and respect, which in turn motivates mentees to apply themselves and follow through
  8. Students in demographic groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM can especially benefit from a near-peer’s experience recently navigating the many layers of college life, which includes many new experiences outside of academics
  9. Near-peer mentors have had to become uber organized to survive college and a young career and are often very willing to share what they’ve learned
  10. Near-peer mentors can provide emotional support and often receive training in this area as part of the program they represent
  11. Near-peer mentors can offer expertise in relevant areas outside of STEM
  12. It’s natural for younger students to have tunnel vision and mostly focus on the subject at hand. Near-peer mentors can help them see the bigger picture and overcome the distance between the beginning of their educational journey and where they hope to end up

Research shows that mentoring helps all students, but especially women and others underrepresented in STEM disciplines, combat the isolation they can feel in STEM environments. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology states that mentoring is critical for retaining STEM majors in STEM careers, which is a necessity for our nation to continue leading the world in scientific and technical innovation.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation’s STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About Morgan State Univerity

Morgan State University’s Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science (CEMSE) was created in 1988 to enhance Morgan State’s math and science offerings for its students and to address how technology influences all aspects of society—from health and the environment to the nation’s workforce and national defense. CEMSE’s role in the consortium is to support collaborative activities between Morgan State students, the surrounding Baltimore community, and the numerous DoD installations in the greater Washington, DC/Baltimore area.

About Bowie State University

Bowie State University (BSU) offers innovative academic and hands-on experiences that enable students to explore a variety of pathways to computing and other STEM careers. Maryland’s first historically black university, BSU supports the states workforce and economy through strategic partnerships, research and public service. Recognized as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense, BSU prepares students for high-demand professions to help secure the nation from cyber-attacks.