Relationships and projects: Developing recommended practices

Turning to the field to find out what keeps relationships growing in project-focused mentoring programs.

The balance between a positive experience for young people and creating a cool project is prevalent in many program models. At Michigan State University Extension, we are exploring that balance in the Michigan 4-H Tech Wizards program, which focuses small group mentoring on exploring STEAM projects. “Staying relationship-focused in a project-based world” discusses the need for this balance from the perspective of emerging 21st century learning skills and existing outcomes around building relationships.

Relating this overlap back to what is working in weekly programming, the following recommendations were developed in collaboration with 4-H program coordinator Jodi Wrzesinski:

  • Pick projects based on the phase of the relationship. If the relationship is fairly new, make sure the project is fairly simple – highly technical projects could get in the way of group's forming/bonding.
  • Keep it simple. Regardless of the tenure of the group, simpler projects allow for more modifications to get the whole group involved. Remember, how the activity is done is often more important than the activity itself.
  • Decide whether to do a shared project or individual projects. “A tale of two projects” explores this in more detail. If an activity calls for individual projects, it is important for a mentor to be equipped to keep group conversations going.
  • Communicate the focus. Make sure mentors and youth know they are there to build a relationship and life skills, not just to make cool stuff.
  • Know the importance of intentional reflection. Following the experiential learning model, mentors that are equipped to lead a discussion on how activities went help improve the group dynamic.
  • Allow for mentoring matches to select projects. Even if it is just deciding what variations their group might take, this self-guidance also strengthens the team.
  • Approach competition with care. It can make meetings with multiple small groups more fun, but can also be a distraction. Make sure mentors discuss how the day went regardless of the outcome of the competition.
  • “No experts needed” is an important thing to emphasize so mentors and mentees are not intimidated by a new task.
  • Throw out the directions. Whenever possible, pick a project that can go in multiple directions.

These approaches have started to lead to strong mentoring relationships and matches that are doing cool projects in the Bay County 4-H Tech Wizards program and at other Michigan 4-H Tech Wizards sites. “Relationships and projects: Next steps” takes this further by highlighting a few parts of the role of a program manager or case worker that will continue to help with this project/relationship balance.

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