Mad About Science: Cybermentor

Words: Jill Macdonald

On September 4, 2019, Arc’teryx will donate 100% of proceeds from the day’s sales on www.arcteryx.com to Cybermentor.

In my family, engineers are in every generation. My father, brother, uncle, and now my sister-in-law and niece. Yes, science is also for girls.

Balance is a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. Let’s be comfortable with saying that people from varied backgrounds and cultures bring a variety of perspectives to their problem-solving challenges. In that same vein, let’s also be comfortable in saying that female and male perspectives bring different concepts to problem-solving challenges. Generally speaking, to rephrase the statement, girls and boys display different approaches. In Alberta, where the oil and gas industry employs a large proportion of the population, there is a steady demand for scientists of all disciplines. Surveyors, geologists, engineers, aeronautics and beyond. It would stand to reason then, that a balance of male and female scientists presents the optimal future work force.

Hosted in Alberta, Cybermentor is an online mentoring program for girls in grades six to 12 who are residents of the province. Each participant is matched with her own carefully screened mentor. Using secure sites, the girls connect with their mentor, chat about careers, pathways and learn of the wealth of opportunities in science and engineering, while also discovering new interests and confidence. Girls talking to female role models. Girls being encouraged to follow their aptitudes. Celebrating difference, not discouraging it.

Nat Panek, aerospace engineer and advocate for eliminating space junk, is a mentor in the program. She is typical only within that pool: overcoming obstacles, persevering, following her dreams. Research has shown that young people experience tremendous growth under the tutelage of mentors and develop greater self-confidence, positive attitudes towards school, better social skills, feelings of self-worth and even stronger relationships with their parents. This is particularly important in science and engineering, where women are under-represented. The matching process used by Cybermentor puts inspiring women like Nat in touch with young girls who hold similar hobbies, and preferences and career interests.

Cybermentor is a free program. The online format removes geographic, accessibility and socio-economic barriers. All that is required is parental consent and access to the Internet once a week during the school year.

The unique talents of women are crucial to innovation and growth in the science and engineering sectors. Unconscious gender biases and a lack of prominent female role models continues to discourage girls from fully participating in the field. Cybermentor strives to change this, by empowering girls to make a world of difference.

Mentors are inspiring women who have followed diverse careers. They range in age from early twenties onward and enjoy the experience of being a role model, motivating the next generation of mathematicians, scientists and engineers. A broader view of career opportunities, increased knowledge of the benefits for women in the fields of science, and encouraging young girls to continue their studies are the goals of the program.

Launched in 2001 by Dr. Elizabeth Cannon at the University of Calgary, Cybermentor has grown to include more than 3,000 girls and their mentors in 70 communities across Alberta. It’s one of the largest programs of its kind in Canada and serves as the model for a program in Germany. A brighter future awaits us all.