By Allie Barwise, Managing Director and Emily Cooper, Director of Programs,

Illinois Science and Technology Institute


By 2018, it is expected that Illinois will demand 319,820 STEM jobs, and 93 percent of those jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education and training. In 2014, Illinois universities produced approximately 35,000 graduates with STEM degrees at all levels—28 percent of all degrees conferred by those institutions that year. While this figure has been steadily growing over the past 10 years, we must do more to meet the growing demand for qualified individuals in STEM fields.

In classrooms across the country, teachers work tirelessly to educate their students and support college and career readiness. But even the best prepared teacher cannot be an expert on every topic. Gaining relevant real-world exposure in the classroom is increasingly important for a successful educational experience, and this is driving a need for students to engage with mentors working in STEM fields to amplify what is taught in the classroom.

The Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI), an affiliate of the ISTC, was created in 2011 to advance STEM talent pipeline development in Illinois. Through the R&D STEM Learning Exchange (RDLE), ISTI has brought together high schools, industry, universities, and non-profits to develop programs that support inquiry-based learning. These programs build critical thinking skills and provide perspective on R&D applications within Illinois industry. A particular need that we hear consistently from each of our partners is how to reduce the transaction cost of engaging with mentors outside the classroom to create meaningful interactions that are scalable and sustainable. This was the impetus for the Mentor Matching Engine (MME), an invitation-based platform that connects Illinois high school students and their teachers to STEM professionals from industry and research institutions to support and enhance personalized, student-led research.

Developed in partnership with the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), this virtual mentoring platform allows STEM professionals to serve as mentors anytime, anywhere to guide students through student-led research around a project in an area of interest to the student.

By working with a STEM professional mentor, high school students are exposed to multiple perspectives along the STEM pipeline. Students explore a topic of interest to them by developing a question that can be answered through an investigative research process. Students then post teacher-approved research questions on MME and request mentors with relevant subject matter expertise to provide guidance in a discussion format that can accommodate document sharing and videoconferencing. Using expertise gained through their research background and experience in industry, mentors provide perspective on how R&D is applied beyond the classroom which in turn gives students an insight into the potential impact and reach of their research in the real world.

By connecting mentors and students electronically, RDLE is able to offer high-quality mentoring experiences and overcome geographic barriers. Studies of the impact of MME’s impact show students reported having a better understanding of research and the skills required to do research as a result of participating in the RDLE and working with mentors. Teachers reported that using MME allowed their students to be problem solvers, encouraged them to build professional skills by interacting with real professionals who are solving real-world problems, and increased student motivation by offering an opportunity  to present to professionals.

After a year of beta use, the MME has matched 242 students and their teachers at 16 high schools across the state. With the continued growth of the mentor and high-school network, the hope is to impact over 500 students this academic year with an eye toward doubling those efforts for 2016-17. This platform addresses the proven need for mentors – MME breaks down the transaction costs that can stand in the way of significant engagement between mentor and mentee and has the potential to serve as model for STEM education in Illinois and beyond.


Want to be a mentor? Mentors are needed in all disciplines and work in various settings and industries. If you are interested in serving as mentor or setting up a mentor recruitment event please contact Allie Barwise or Emily Cooper

Watch and Listen

Students and mentors describe the Mentor Matching Engine experience


Students and teachers recap the 2015 RDLE Challenge event



Illinois Innovation Network Featured Resource:

Illinois Innovation Network Featured Resource: Each month, the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition features a service or resource available to innovators and entrepreneurs in the state of Illinois on the Illinois Innovation Network. To learn more and add your resource to the Network, click here.

Join us in Champaign on October 8, 2015 to get a preview of our next great innovations at the UI Innovation and Startup Showcase. If you are a venture capitalist, corporate technology executive, or government agency partner, we invite you to join us for this exceptional opportunity to hear from the University’s leading innovators and entrepreneurs. This year’s event will feature 18 faculty and numerous start-ups discussing breakthroughs in human health, robotics, computer vision, networked systems and security.  Register here