Graduate students mentor middle school students in STEM fields

This spring semester, the first Oswego Middle School mentoring program was launched.

Patricia Waters, interim director for Experiential Learning at SUNY Oswego, is leading the initiative and currently has four graduate students mentoring at the middle school. “I think the initiative comes at a great time for SUNY Oswego as we continue to expand our science outreach to the community,” Waters said.

Every Monday and Wednesday after school, the graduate students meet with two groups of 7th and 8th graders to discuss this semester’s topics, robotics and forensics.

The STEM initiative

“The benefits of the program are threefold; increase student engagement and performance in STEM disciplines, improve graduate students’ teaching and outreach skills, and develop a regional network of community-campus partnerships,” Water’s said.

“I think the initiative comes at a great time for SUNY Oswego as we continue to expand our science outreach to the community." Patricia Waters Interim Director for Experiential Learning at SUNY Oswego

In fall 2010, the New York Academy of Sciences started a mentoring initiative to address the shortage of STEM programming available in K-12 education. By summer 2012, the Academy, SUNY, and Empire State College were jointly awarded a $2.95 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support the initiative of improving early STEM education.

The University of Albany, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and SUNY IT were the first SUNY institutions to receive funding to promote STEM mentoring programs and in Aug. 2013, SUNY Oswego along with two other sites became phase two of the SUNY initiative. With the two-year grant, SUNY Oswego will be able to provide up to 50 students from Oswego Middle School with the mentoring experience and Water’s hopes to recruit up to 10 graduate mentors per semester.

The mentors

Ahmeda Hrustanovic, chemistry and Kelly LaBarge, mental health counseling, are part of the initial mentoring group and currently conducting forensic labs with the 7th and 8th graders.

“It’s a great way to prepare these students for high school and college, especially if they are considering a career in science,” Hrustanovic said. “It’s the end of the day and you would think these kids would want to go home, but they are all so excited to be here and to learn.”

LaBarge and Hrustanovic are holding forensic labs, where students learn how to measure bones, determine gender through bone remains, blood splatter analysis and other forensic investigative procedures. “It’s wonderful that they have the hands-on experience because when I was in middle school we didn’t have this type of opportunity,” LaBarge said.

Patricia Tanner and Carly Karas are in the human-computer interaction master’s program and are working with the second group of middle school students on the topic of robotics using Lego Mindstorm Robots.

Students are paired in groups of three, each with a Lego Mindstorm kit and throughout the next few months, they will learn the functions of a robot and have the experience of building their own.

“It’s important for the students to understand that it’s not all science fiction and artificial intelligence,” Karas said. In addition to serving as role models for middle school students, graduate students receive waived tuition for a three-credit online course leading to New York Academy of Sciences Fellow Teaching Credential. The graduate mentors are not just teaching students about robots and forensics, they are improving science and math literacy among middle school children.

“I want to give these students the opportunity to have hands-on experience in these STEM fields, because I didn’t have that,” Hrustanovic said. “They will be more confident with their skills in high school and college, allowing them to advance in their future.”

For more information on the STEM Mentoring Initiative, contact Patricia Waters at

Tagged: STEM, HCI