Postgraduate students as research mentors for secondary school students in science: experiences from UNSW

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The Secondary School Enrichment Program (SSEP) is one of several outreach initiatives within the Faculty of Science at UNSW. Developed in conjunction with a local, non-selective, high performing secondary school, the SSEP aims to draw talented students into university science degree programs, particularly in the enabling science disciplines. SSEP offers secondary school students mentoring through current science research projects by postgraduate students in the Faculty. Since its inception, the program has obtained consistently positive feedback from all participants. However, in order to better understand the value of the program we have investigated the perceived benefits of the program through pre- and post-program surveys. Our earlier work focused on exploring the usefulness of such programs to stimulate interest among secondary school students studying science at the tertiary level. Here we focus on the experiences of the postgraduate participants, the mentors. Postgraduate mentors were provided training and the opportunity to communicate their research outside the scientific community, experience teaching, acquire leadership skills, and network with other PhD students. Graduate students are seen as an untapped resource for public outreach (Giblin and Pagen (1998), Conservation Biology, 12 (6): 1421-1422); the SSEP utilises our postgraduate students as ambassadors for science in their respective areas of specialisation, promoting science as a career choice. Previously, postgraduate mentors rated themselves quite positively (on a 5-point Likert scale) for statements in the survey describing their ability to communicate, lead and show respect for social and personal diversity. Overall, there was only a slight increase in ratings for communication and leadership post-program and there was a decrease in the rating of their perception of collaborating with other postgraduate students in the program. Most of the mentors surveyed were concerned with communicating their research area to the students in a way that could be easily understood by them and this was the most challenging aspect of their experience. A 2009 cohort of mentors and high school students are currently completing the SSEP. The data collected from this cohort will be combined with data from previous years and presented at this meeting. Discussion will focus on effectiveness of the program in developing or enhancing among postgraduate mentors skills such as communication, leadership and teamwork (graduate attributes). We will share our experiences in developing and coordinating the program and discuss the merits and feasibility of expanding programs such as this.
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Tay, Chong Eng
Michelle, Kofod
Quinnell, Rosanne
Lino, Bianca
Whitaker, Noel
Reid, Iona
Cox, Julian
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UNSW Faculty