A Publication of WTVP

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

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 [email protected]. PM