Our lockdown mentoring plan was a lifeline, and it’s still going

Concordia University students plan PsychOut, an online mentoring program.Credit: Emily Coffey

In September 2020, we all participated in the undergraduate psychology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada (PW, PV and RP as final year students pursuing an honors degree, EC as teacher and augmented reality as graduate student). In any other year, undergraduates would spend as much time in the lab working closely with researchers and graduate students on their first research projects. For those of us applying to graduate schools, the experience of writing an honors thesis would have helped set the direction of our careers, as well as offer practical skills, publication opportunities, and letters of reference.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic meant we were confined to our homes. Each of us had to plan dissertation projects that could be done remotely. We felt separated, and we missed the opportunity. In the face of complete lockdown and only remote learning and searching, we were concerned about how this crucial year would go.

When, during conference calls, we began discussing the impact of this change on our future (and our mental health), we quickly realized that the pandemic was affecting individuals at all levels of education: professors, graduate students, and even students who were completing high school. There are usually many opportunities for high school students to visit campuses, chat with academic advisors, and attend outreach activities to learn more about scientific career paths and what research involves — but those opportunities dried up once the pandemic settled.

A final year class of 13 students decided to address this lack of communication, as well as our loss of skill development, by creating PsychOut (short for “Psychology Outreach”). It would be a volunteer program in which we mentored high school students and gained skills for our future jobs in the process. We have recruited graduate students and professors to add depth to our expertise.

PsychOut sessions have taken the form of one-on-one virtual meetings every two weeks throughout the 2020 school year, where high school students follow the progress of research projects for undergraduate mentors. We complemented this in-depth presentation of the mentors’ research areas with a series of virtual documentaries screenings, followed by discussions with invited researchers. Finally, mentor pairs submitted a research paper of their choice orally, to help the school’s students develop their communication skills (with modest prizes for the top three, given by our department and judged by faculty).

PsychOut was born on a particularly bleak stage during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this school year continued with a new group of excited volunteers. After we completed the program, we realized that it wasn’t just a useful alternative to the “normal” lab work we would have done were it not for the pandemic. It addressed more general issues, such as how to develop “soft skills” and become citizens that help solve the problems facing our generation and our professions.

frame construction

We began hiring fellow undergraduate psychologists in their final year, for a total of 30 mentors. We aimed to keep the workload light by limiting meetings to half an hour, without foreseeing any preparations. Next, we enrolled self-motivated high school students (ages 16-19). Although we were open to everyone, we wanted to include students who might not have experience with scientific career paths. We have found that the most effective way to recruit and reach diverse communities is to contact our former teachers directly.

We created advertisements that included PsychOut’s goals and program outline, for teachers to distribute during online classes. We tabulated our thesis topics and matched applicants according to the preferences they stated in the entry form. Once the pairs matched, our team had a group discussion to share ideas on how to approach the first meeting with the high school students and form a connection.

Make a call

The main objective of that first meeting was to get to know each other and provide a positive initial experience of the research process. The age gap of only five years and the informal format helped encourage discussions on professional and educational topics.

Although our primary motive was to help the students of the school, we also grew up as people. This was thanks to the challenges of my first academic mentorship experience, such as how to engage with the community about science, and how to answer curveball questions. Articulating complex scientific concepts clearly, identifying where knowledge gaps exist and developing strategies to fill them are essential guiding competencies. Being a mentor has given many of us a sense of purpose and responsibility. Realizing that mentoring is possible even in the early career stages has been satisfying and beneficial, and is something we plan to continue in the future.

Expand your search exposure

We were joined by two graduate students who volunteered to organize documentary shows. The goal was to broaden the school’s students’ exposure to different research areas in psychology and neuroscience, such as vision, testing, touch, and smell. We asked graduate students to select and contact researchers in each district, who had seen films with the students and then answered their questions.

Discussions arose from the theme of each documentary, and varied widely according to the school’s students’ curiosity, relating the research to their own experiences. For example, we explored the causes of olfactory loss in COVID-19, differences in sensory processing in autism, and how the sensory and motor systems are tuned and enhanced with exercise.

To engage the school’s students in critical thinking and science communication, we also invited them to participate in a conference-like virtual event at the end of PsychOut. They learned how to find, read, interpret and summarize a journal article, with our personal guidance, and then present it to the “conference” and answer the questions about it.

In the exit survey, high school students reported feeling surprised and encouraging college students and professors to invest time in them. They expressed pride in learning to understand, present and discuss scientific literature. Many credited their mentors with helping them navigate a difficult academic year, and appreciated the insights into our university’s experiences as they contemplated their next steps. Whatever those are, our students will have a positive interaction with the scientific community and will better understand the work we do.

Widely applicable

PsychOut gave high school students access to personalized academic guidance and provided learning opportunities for mentors and graduate students, while being low intensity and easy to set up.

Although elements of the program may need to be adapted to other disciplines, the basic structure remains broadly applicable. We hope that other groups will start their own initiatives of this kind, which in the long run will help address the representational imbalances in our profession.

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