Mentoring Students

One on one mentoring of students is a very powerful tool to engage and inspire learning and creativity. It is an excellent way to push young minds to have a greater understanding of not only the scientific process, but the things they love. There are a lot of ways that an opportunity to mentor can arise. Sometimes a student wants to do extra work, more challenging work, or even work on an independent science project. In six years of teaching, I mentored somewhere over 130 independent research projects. These experiences have given me a number of opportunities to develop and try different mentoring strategies.

Mentoring helps enrich students understanding of science and fosters a greater understanding of how to conduct accurate, fun research

Mentoring has been very rewarding for me and I hope to be able to continue to do it. I have found that there are some situations where it works better than others. Many times students would come to me and ask me to give them a project to work on for a science fair or class. Much of the time this is not hard to do, but results in very lackluster results. This is because the projects usually were something I was interested in. I found that I would be very excited to see the student finish the project, never get to see a final result. Usually part of the way thought the project the student would abandoned it or just present a very low quality final product. There were also occasions where the student would work endless hours on a project that I assigned them, and then end up getting almost no results because there was either a fundamental miss-understanding or miss-communication between us. There are many problems I have found with assigning projects to students and this lead me to refine how I help students come up with ideas.

Students need to come up with their own projects that focus on topics they are interested in to maximize success

I found that one of the most important parts of mentoring is communication. Communication starts with developing the project idea. From my experience, one of the best things to do is sit down and ask what kinds of topics the person is interested in. If they have no interests in thermodynamics, but love to listen to music and enjoy electrocuting people, then focusing on the latter topics would help guide the creative process towards something they would like to do, instead of something I wanted to see done. I like to narrow down ideas to a few categories that are fairly broad. This can be done relatively quickly and leaves them with the task of going home and think about more specific applications of the topics.

Often the best projects to work on are found by looking at the world and identifying what annoys you about it, then figuring out how to make it better

For example, the student who enjoyed electrocution went home and came back with ideas for electrocuting people with car alarms, house alarms, locker alarms, backpack alarms, etc (they proved to have a very good imagination about what needed protection, but were a little single minded on the solution to stop criminals). I thought these were all great ideas, however they were a little difficult to create and test safely. We ended up talking more, and most importantly laughing. From the discussion, the student decided that they would look into different methods of detecting when a person made contact with a car or house so that an alarm would be set off (which is this case the student insisted on being an electric shock, or something dealing with a flame thrower. Neither of which I sanctioned for testing!) This student worked diligently and came up with a capacitive touch system that could be put on a door handle to detect when someone touched it. They spent about 2 months on the project and came up with a neat little system, but more importantly was able to start with a concept and see how a simple concept evolves over time into a final product. I had the benefit of watching this process and regularly offering advice when they asked me questions.

In contrast, I had a student ask me to give them electronics project idea. When they did not put any effort into the process of developing an idea I suggested that they work on a timer that mimicked a TV instead of just turning a light on and off. I gave them a justification, and all the parts they might need. After 2 months, they had set up 6 LEDs that blinked on and off somewhat randomly. Not only did they fail to produce something realistic, they left out a key feature because there was no way to schedule when the system ran, which a standard light timer could do. I was disappointed, they did not produce something that was useful, they did not do the testing that I recommended, and the only thing they enjoyed about the project was how easy it was for them to complete. This was a bad mentoring experience for both of us and reiterates the importance of the student coming up with a project idea that they are interested in.

When both people communicate effectivly mentoring can be very rewarding. I have had many projects that I really enjoyed helping the students with and still remember years later. Here are some examples:

Laser Alarm Clock
A student who had a hard time waking up for school in the morning used a microcontorller, RGB LED’s, and a laser pointer to make a laser tag game they had to win to shut off an alarm in the morning.

The Effect of Arm Placement on a Grand Jeté
This student who loved dance, used Tracker to preform video analysis of different dance moves to see if there is a difference in leap distance based on arm position

Effects of a Bat’s Weight in Baseball
A student who loved baseball used a bat swing analysis device they purchased and the schools baseball team to measure the difference in swing speed with and without warming up with a bat weight.

Electromagnetic Radiation Shield
This student did a largely research based project on the effects of radiation on astronauts and calculated based on spaceweather.com data how large of a magnetic field would be needed to protect the astronauts. They also came up with spacecraft designs that could possibly be used to create a protective field.

Flight Analysis of Spin-Guided vs. Non Spin-Guided Rockets
A student who was interested in rocketry used a 9 degrees of freedom data logger to collect data on model rocket flights with or without a small gyroscope running in them.

The Impact of a Fan Against Convective Heat Transfer at Various Heights
This student used an array of thermal sensors suspended in a room they built with a heat source at the bottom and a fan at the top. They analyzed the data to show how fans work to evenly disperse heat throughout a room and keep the average temperature higher and more constant over time.

Exploring Alternative Methods of Recording 3D Video
This student loved video editing and attempted to use two iPhones that they offset from each other to try and capture 3D video. They ran the output from the iPhones to LCD projectors in an attempt to create a cheap 3D video system. This ended up not working, however they were able to research and come up with an exact reason why their system failed and a solution to their problem that ended up not being cost effective.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep Clock
This student wanted better quality sleep, so they researched how to tell if a person was in a REM sleep state or not, then created an actual device that would monitor sleep and wake the person during a selected time range to minimize disturbances to their REM sleep pattern.

Creating a Variable Speed Scrolling Sheet Music Assistant
This student wanted to come up with a solution for their sister, who played musical instruments, to not have to flip pages of music or precariously balance multiple sheets during a performance. They used a microcontroller and stepper motors to scroll the sheet music through a device at a speed that was appropriate for the song.

Shedding Light: A Study of the OIII to Visual Flux Ratio of Astronomical Objects
This student went into the field and collected data at an observatory over a series of nights and processed the data to compare OIII and Visual flux.

The Music of the Heart: The Transformation of Electrocardiogram (ECG) into Sound
This student wanted to make analysis of ECG easier by doing a real time mathematical transformation and analysis of ECG data to create a unique song that anyone could listen to and identify various heart problems.

Hydrofoil Development for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
This student developed a system and mathematical model to test the effectiveness of hydrofoils on underwater vehicles compared to standard flat fins that are typically used.

The Effects of Angular Perception on the Distance a Football is Thrown
This student created a football launcher that would consistently launch a football. The device was capable of either adding, or not adding spin to a football. It was used to launch footballs so he could measure the distance each ball traveled.

Mentoring does not stop when a project does, it just evolves into something new

Most of these topics were not high on my list of interests, however while working with the students, I saw their passion and gained a deep understanding of the projects and still carry memories of the interactions with me today.