On Campus: Near Peer Mentoring Experiences Empower Students and Build Cross-Cultural Partnerships

This article is part of a new series of features on the work of our wonderful SENCER community members. NCSCE staff have the pleasure of corresponding with so many of you on a regular basis and are aware your efforts, but we realize that most members of our community may only have access to information about these great initiatives at our national or regional events. This series allows us to share the ingenuity and dynamic work of NCSCE participants and their partners with all of our readers. Each month, we’ll talk with educators, administrators, students, and/or staff to learn how they have implemented the SENCER approach, and how it has impacted their campuses and communities.


Faculty and students from Hiram College, a private liberal arts institution in Ohio, are engaged in dynamic Near Peer Mentoring programs that build community connections and cross-cultural bridges. While conducting fieldwork to improve local environmental conditions, students connect with peers, develop an understanding of cultural perspectives, and become empowered as scientists and leaders as they take on project management responsibilities and guide high school students in gathering samples.


Dennis Taylor, professor of biology and co-director of Learning Streams International, Lucy Chamberlain of Learning Streams International, and Hiram College students Kerry Dombroski, Colton Kinderknecht, and Abeera Mehmood presented on their effective initiative at the NCSCE 2018 Washington Symposium and Poster Session: advancing the public understanding of science. Here, they share with us the history of the program, the student experience, and the lasting impact of involvement on participants. – Danielle Kraus Tarka


Please provide a summary of the program and how it developed.

Dennis Taylor and Lucy Chamberlain: Learning Streams International (LSI) is a collaborative of educators, scientists, students and local citizens dedicated to improving student learning through inquiry into local environmental issues. Our method is to form learning communities of five high school students and a teacher mentored by an undergraduate who teaches leadership, democratic decision making, and respect for life through mentoring. The undergraduate Near Peer Mentors (NPM) are trained to model discovery learning by teaching biomonitoring protocols to both students and teachers in an intensive summer institute. We seek to engage  diverse communities of students with different abilities and interests. Individual learning communities sustain what they have learned by creating service learning “legacy projects” that identify and improve local environmental issues related to climate change and sustainability. The LSI Summer Institute, Chincoteague-Washington DC, was inspired by previous field trip experiences of the teachers and professors themselves, who had participated in similar field studies in their college years with their professors.


In 2014 we branched out to include international partners in Pakistan and the Dominican Republic. This field particular program was first conducted with international students from Pakistan and American students. It was offered for the first time to Dominican Republic students last year with an investigative theme of coastal community resilience. Four Dominican Republic students attended with their teacher and two Dominican Republic NPMs completed the program and received certificates. They in turn have taken what they learned to their fellow students in the Dominican Republic and now are conducting similar field studies of the issues of water quality in their own rivers, streams and oceans. We continue to work with 8 schools in the Dominican Republic, supporting them in developing their own programs. They have established a program there called Dominican Environmental Education Program (DEEP) that they now celebrate annually on DEEP Day. Students report on their results and discuss their plans for further studies. DEEP’s objectives are to (1) foster ecological awareness regarding the human role in ecosystems, (2) determine the health of wetlands and other marine coastal ecosystems, such as estuaries and beaches, through scientific evaluation, (3) find creative and innovative ways to reduce human impacts, and (4) develop STEM opportunities through real life situations. The Dominican schools are also looking for ways to expand the program into the public schools.


We assess our impact through self-reported results from all participants recorded in daily reflections captured through mobile technology and through presentation of results by learning communities at conferences and LSI spring summits. These results combined with pre- and post-program assessments indicate that students and teachers become ambassadors of ecoliteracy in their local communities when their work is embraced by their local school systems and communities. Sustainable programs of the 80 participating schools are most successful: (1)  when students are recognized for the outcomes of their legacy projects at conferences, (2) when discovery learning becomes embedded as part of the curriculum, (3) when administrators embrace learning community legacy projects as part of the ethos of the school, and (4) when teachers have opportunities to work with one another as scholars reflecting on the learning of their students.


How did you first get involved, and why did you choose to?

Colton Kinderknecht: I got involved in the program last summer after applying to it during the Spring semester at Hiram. Denny was my instructor for my biology lab course and one of the first things that he did was challenge all of the students; he forced all of us to take on our own experiments and to lead ourselves to our answers as opposed to being lectured the answer – it was truly an unusual and important experience. Denny talked in class about LSI and I was instantly interested in it; it seemed like the type of program that changed lives. I chose it because I thought that it would open my eyes to more than what I normally experience, and because I thought I would learn about things that I never really thought about before.


Abeera Mehmood: Being a Pakistani national studying at Hiram College, I found this internship to be extremely important for reasons like cultural exchange. I always wanted to be part of a project that would allow me to use my experiences at Hiram as a way to bridge cultural gaps as well as to encourage young students to enter the field of science.


Kerry Dombroski: I first became involved with LSI when I heard about the program from Denny. I was in my spring advising meeting of my freshman year when he asked what I was going to do that summer. I had anticipated getting a summer job, possibly taking a summer class, and trying to get more job shadowing done. Denny asked if I would be interested in participating in his summer internship program through Learning Streams; he gave me some information on past students who were involved and what they did: Spending time in the field at Chincoteague, helping to facilitate high school students’ learning, and ultimately changing the world by the end of the summer. I felt this would be a new and interesting experience for me, so I quickly applied. This opportunity ended up being one that impacted my life and character immensely.


Lucy Chamberlain: I had previously been involved with other outdoor learning projects on the Hiram College campus and in other field study locations. For me, learning environmental science in the field has always been an exciting, engaging and yes, challenging, but fun and rewarding way to work with students.


Dennis Taylor: I was part of an interdisciplinary team (professors in Education, Biology and Technology) that took up a challenge from the Ohio Board of Regents to develop new ways to engage average high school students to pursue STEM subjects in high school and college. We had met each other through the Ohio Learning Network, a Board of Regents statewide program dedicated to improving teaching and learning by applying the science of teaching and learning to the teaching and learning of science. I was excited to extend what I had seen with the engagement of my college students to a younger audience.


What did you do as part of this project?

Colton Kinderknecht: I was a Near Peer Mentor in the program; my job was to help the high school students learn; guide them as they learned more about the environment around them. My duties included looking after the students, and giving them the resources that they needed in order to learn. Moreover, I also helped them reflect on what they were seeing and why it might be relevant to them. My job was to be the in-between person between the students and the higher up people and, as such, I had to help both sides in whatever way I could – from doing budgets to driving students.


Abeera Mehmood: I served as a Near Peer Mentor to students from Pakistan, the Dominican Republic and the United States. I worked with the students in a learning community composed of 5 high-school students and one high-school teacher. Personal experiences and hands on learning was used as a means to instill science curiosity within the students. I also got a chance to do some administrative work like reserving hotels and keeping track of finances.


Kerry Dombroski: As a Near Peer Mentor for LSI, I did a multitude of things. From helping create the program budget to assisting students in the vast amount of field work conducted, the NPM role is truly eclectic. I enjoy hands-on learning, and I believe you really come to a better  understanding of any subject or topic when you are in the position to help others learn it along the way. I also made many friends throughout this program from all over the world – ranging from Islamabad, Pakistan to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. I keep in touch with everyone I met through social media and it is always to encouraging to see how LSI is impacting them and how they continue to impact the communities from which they come. The legacy projects our students are conducting are incredible and truly show how  our program is impacting the world.


Lucy Chamberlain: My background is in botany and ecology. I worked with the students on plant identification and field studies of vegetation, participating in day-to-day activities, planning and organizing the day-to-day program.


Dennis Taylor: I have served as one of three co-directors who use a heuristic approach. I help to organize training of the undergraduate mentors by experts in learning, technology and science. I then help with the organization of summer institutes and the evaluation of outcomes through daily reflections, and group work by learning communities. I also work to find non-traditional sources of funding.  


How has participating in this project impacted you?

Colton Kinderknecht: Participating in LSI has changed the way that I look at the world. Beforehand I never really looked at the perspectives of other nations and how the environment might be impacting them; like the water crisis in Pakistan or the rising sea levels in the Dominican Republic. I am immensely better for this experience; it has shaped me into a better person. I think that I am more open and understanding now, and I think that I more easily consider other perspectives in situations. It is hard to say just how much the program impacted me, but it did; I saw just how much I could handle and I grew as a person.


Abeera Mehmood: The experiences have served to impact me in many different ways. I was able to build my scientific identity by realizing that I actually have had more experience in the research field than I give myself credit for. In addition to this, I was able to build a strong personality by being a student leader. I believe that I was able to make a positive impact on the world by being part of LSI.


Kerry Dombroski: The impact LSI had on me is immeasurable. I feel so fortunate to have been involved in such a diverse, eclectic, and interdisciplinary program. The friendships I made during this summer institute are some I will cherish forever. This experience showed me the beauty of various cultures coming together in an inclusive and inspiring environment. The change that can come from this type of setting is remarkable and something that can most definitely impact our world for the better. I think programs like LSI set the prime example of collaborating to tackle the 21st century challenges we face like climate change and the water crisis.


Lucy Chamberlain: I have gained a deeper understanding of more effective ways of teaching environmental science that is driven by a student’s own inquiry rather than a teacher being the source of all information. It is exciting, even though sometimes chaotic, to be in the middle of that process and to see what the students develop themselves and to share in their enthusiasm for learning.


It is exciting to witness the transformation in students who become fully engaged in learning environmental science through their experiences in LSI. This is especially the case with students who weren’t sure about what they wanted to do, but now have a much clearer sense of direction and purpose in their studies. Seeing that happen, further convinces me that this inquiry-based learning in science outside the classroom, should be a routine part of any student’s educational experiences.


Dennis Taylor: I have been transformed in what I do as a professor. I used to intersperse discovery learning with a heavy dose of lectures. I now design my courses so that discovery learning and reflection is central to all of my teaching, with student-centered peer and near-peer teaching as central elements.  


Thank you Denny, Lucy, Kerry, Colton, and Abeera for sharing your reflections with the community!




From left to right, the people in the photograph are Abeera Mehmood, Brian Corbin, Munawar Qasim, Safi Ullah, Kelvi Almonte, Colton Kinderknecht, Saud Ali, Christopher Esquea, Fatima Jan, Kerry Dombroski, and Ume Habiba. Photo taken by Kevin Heller and provided by Colton Kinderknecht.

Posted in eNews, SENCER News.