Michele Galata was a typical fifth-grader, full of high hopes and big dreams. But she was bored with school. Michele, now 11, wants to be an astronomer. Why, she wondered, couldn't going to school be as cool as exploring outer space?
Michele isn't bored anymore. Last year, when she was a student at Schallenberger Elementary School in San Jose, California, Michele was chosen to participate in an innovative mentoring program created by Hewlett-Packard. The program matches HP employees with students from grades 5 through 12. But HP-style mentoring doesn't mean monthly trips to a museum or Saturday-morning homework sessions. It means one-on-one interactions via email. Call it what you will - telementoring, virtual mentoring, email mentoring - HP has created a new approach to an old idea.
Michele's mentor worked at an HP sales office in Mountain View, California. With her help, Michele was able to correspond (via email, of course) with a NASA engineer who worked on the Mars Pathfinder project. She also used the Web to find out what skills she'll need to become an astronomer - which is how she came to understand why fractions actually matter. "My mentor helped me understand what school is for," Michele says.
Michele is one of thousands of students who have participated in the HP program since it was created, in January 1995, by David Neils, then a software developer with HP in Fort Collins, Colorado. More than 350 students enrolled in the first round of the program, which lasted from January 1995 to May 1996. At that point, Neils, now 38, left his position as a software developer to run the program full-time, and during the following school year, the program expanded to 1,500 students.
Email has many virtues as a mentoring medium, Neils argues. It allows mentors to have frequent interactions with students instead of just meeting with them every few weeks. It also lets businesspeople reach kids who need their help — wherever those kids may be. Email mentors don't have to be in the same time zone (or hemisphere) as their protégés. HP mentors come from such places as California, Colorado, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The students live in places like Australia, Canada, and Germany.
But for all these virtues, isn't there a big drawback? The lessons of mentoring are personal, not just intellectual; they should provide a little of the human touch, not just training in fractions. How do you offer emotional support over a medium like email? It's easy, Neils argues: "By spending 10 minutes a day - from anywhere on the planet - mentors are having an incredible impact on the lives of these students."
One reason why HP's telementoring program has been so effective is that it requires specific commitments from everyone involved. Students who participate must be sponsored by a teacher, who, in turn, must agree to certain ground rules: Teachers must devise lesson plans for mentoring projects, coordinate those projects with traditional classwork, and guarantee that the students will have email access. For their part, HP mentors agree to own the relationship. "That means responding to every email and hanging in there, even when the kid wavers," says Neils. Most mentors send and receive one to three email messages per week.
That kind of commitment produces results. Michele's attitude toward school improved dramatically after she began exchanging email with her mentor an average of three times a week, says Jill Prober, 53, a learning-resources specialist at Schallenberger. "Up until this year, Michele had trouble staying focused," says Prober. "Now you can see the sparkle in her eyes."
Neils's eyes are sparkling too. Along with running the HP program, he now heads the International Telementor Center (ITC), based in Fort Collins. HP made a hefty up-front financial contribution and has pledged 1,500 mentors to support the ITC, which plans to recruit other corporate sponsors as charter members. Neils hopes that his center will serve 10,000 students per year by 2003. "This has put a lot of gas in my tank," he says. "Mentoring is one of the best investments in the future that an adult can make."
You can learn more about the Hewlett-Packard E-mail Mentor Program http://www.telementor.org/hp. You can reach David Neils via email firstname.lastname@example.org .
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.