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Mentoring Advice From a Presidential Awardee

Armando Rodriguez, an associate professor in the department of electrical engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in 1998. He was recognized this year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for his outstanding contributions as a student counselor and also by Arizona State University for his excellence in teaching. Rodriguez offers his advice and insight on good mentoring and why it is important:

"A mentor should fundamentally believe that students represent the future of the profession and the nation. To remain competitive as a nation, we cannot afford to let talented students fall through the cracks. Mentors provide a critical line of defense to prevent this from occurring and are a critical mechanism for connecting students with challenging problems, projects, internship positions, jobs, fellowships, and other career opportunities. A mentor should be a good listener, observer, and problem solver. While listening, a mentor must not only pay attention to the words but also to the tone, attitude, and body language behind the words. Listening is essential for determining whether the student will fit in on the mentor's research team and is critical in ensuring that a research problem is well suited to the student's abilities and potential. A mentor also tries to ensure that the student takes advantage of existing opportunities such as courses, internships, job openings, scholarships, fellowships, seminars, and contests.

Part of building a research program involves taking chances, innovating, combining ideas from various disciplines, and going in new, uncharted directions. To do this effectively requires students with diverse interests, skills, and talents. Mentoring should be viewed as a critical recruitment tool and as a way of assessing interests, skills, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. A mentor must also provide perspective for their students--a sense of the 'big picture'--showing how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It is useful for a mentor to lay down well-defined hurdles for each mentee which may be used by the student to stay on course as well as to assess progress. A mentor tries to ensure that the student is prepared for the future through coursework, independent study and project work, thesis work, internships, etc.

In the short term, mentoring provides a mechanism for assessing, recruiting, and shaping talent for building the faculty member's research program. In the long term, it provides a mechanism for developing the skills of a good research assistant, a partner, a collaborator, or a productive scientist. New faculty members should prepare a ' get tenure' plan as soon as they take the position that contains well-defined short-term and long-term goals; mentoring should be part of that plan. Getting advice from a caring (and respected) senior faculty member could be very helpful.

Many students really have no clue about research, proposal writing, fund raising, publishing, or the peer-reviewed tenure process. Faculty members should take some time to explain to their students what faculty do. This is essential for students to understand the constraints on a faculty member's time. Such an explanation will help a student understand how the system works--how the student fits in, what the faculty member's role is, and what the student's roles and responsibilities are.

At Arizona State University we have been very successful with FAME--Flexible Autonomous Machines operating in an uncertain Environment--as a unifying theme for multidisciplinary research and curricular innovation. It brings together faculty members and students from electrical engineering, mechanical and aerospace engineering, computer science, mathematics, the School of Business, and the School of Fine Arts. Students work on robotic land and air vehicle design, human-machine interfaces, vision systems, speech, wireless communication, interactive multimedia art, and many other areas. Our Modeling, Simulation, Animation, and Real-Time control efforts were recently recognized by a White House Presidential Excellence Award.

Young and junior faculty members should obtain " Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering", National Academy Press, 1995. This reference is a consequence of work initiated by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP)-- Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (1995). Many of the references within this easy-to-read, informative booklet would also be of great value to faculty members and students."