Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2020-05-04, 17:29 authored by Jessica D LeekerJessica D Leeker

Despite generous funding, the current data shows slow-moving demographical changes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and little to no slowing in the decline of STEM-associated career interests in underserved communities (Leeker, Maxey, Cardella & Hynes, 2019). While a considerable amount has been written about the evaluation of formal pre-college STEM programs, little research has been carried out regarding the success of informal programs to encourage interest in STEM-related careers and develop skills needed to succeed in such environments.

A common method of education for elementary school students is to use informal programs, usually with the help of professional mentors. To better understand such programs, the qualitative research that formulates this dissertation is a collective case study of after-school elementary robotics programs in Indiana, the United States, which successfully implemented the State Robotics Initiative (SRI) to provide hands-on STEM learning opportunities. This program relies on mentor expertise for after-school program instruction. The purpose of this study is to investigate mentor involvement in informal STEM programs, including to answer the following research question: How do mentors impact student participants’ advancement of specific engineering skills, including problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication?

In this case study, the researcher collected documents, observed activities involving mentors and students, and interviewed mentors and students to determine how mentor involvement impacts students who participate in informal STEM programs. The researcher then conducted a holistic analysis of the data. To understand how knowledge of STEM skills gained from mentors impacts students, the researcher focused on a coding scheme to correspond with a framework developed by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21).

Themes, the outcome of coding, were developed by “layering the analysis” (Creswell & Poth, 2017), first by showing unique situations of each participant, followed by grouping by the program of these unique situations into comprehensive groupings. This resulted in three separate cases covering multiple participants that serve as examples of mentor impact of specific STEM skills learned by students in three robotics programs.

While the results were not analyzed across cases, all programs sought to increase knowledge with students even though each program had a different background and reason for starting the robotics program. In addition, each program had very different demographics and cultural styles, but all showed the integration of STEM and robotics in an afterschool program, with emphasis on problem-solving. This dissertation includes an introduction, literature review, methodology, findings, and a discussion. Recommendations for educators and future researchers are also presented in a final chapter.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Engineering Education

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Monica Cardella

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Brent Jesiek

Additional Committee Member 2

Morgan Hynes

Additional Committee Member 3

Dawn Russell