It’s easy to be in favor of internships.
Paid internships with high-tech industries provide students with workplace experience — sometimes even the opportunity to do authentic research — while earning enough to forgo other employment for a semester. Employers get the chance to do their bit for the STEM workforce, and they have a few weeks to evaluate a potential new employee.
Related article: Fostering research experiences for students
For technical educators, starting internships programs to attain this win-win for students and employers may seem daunting. But three Advanced Technological Education program grantees — whose portfolios of robust undergraduate research experiences include internships — offer the following practical advice for building internship programs from scratch into substantial, sustainable initiatives.
Step 1: Garner institutional support
“Try to get your goals aligned with your institution goals,” advises James A. Hewlett, a biology professor at Finger Lakes Community College (New York) and executive director of the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI). This means either following the college’s strategic vision for internships or working through the internal process to ensure the internship program you envision is among the college’s strategic goals.
“That’s where you’re going to get the support from people that make the decisions,” he says.
Step 2: Turn industry friends into internship collaborators
To find industry internship partners, Margaret Bryans, associate professor of biology and principal investigator of the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative, suggests beginning with your program’s allies.
“Don’t be afraid to approach your industry partners. It’s been my experience that they want to help,” she says.
She first asked her program’s advisory board members to provide research questions and mentoring to students who conduct industry research as interns working in the lab at Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania).
“They had already bought into the success of the program, so it was easy to approach them with this idea of this research internship for students,” Bryans says.
Hewlett has had success setting up internships at companies that have hired his program graduates and at companies where adjunct faculty work.
Step 3: Start small and build from what you learn
Bryans and Hewlett both recommend starting programs with one student at one company. See how it goes. Adjust as necessary. Then promote the accomplishments from one internship collaboration to “shop around” for the next, Hewlett says.
Bryans also incorporates the findings of her student interns’ research into her research methods course.
“Projects build on course content, but the course content also builds from the projects,” she says.
Step 4: Accept that not every experiment will work
“Don’t be afraid to fail,” is the big lesson Jared Ashcroft has learned during 15 years of guiding various undergraduate research initiatives at Pasadena City College (California), where he is a professor of natural sciences and directs the Micro Nano Technology Education Center.
“You’re going to develop research. You’re going to develop a program. You’re even going to go ask industry partners or university partners to collaborate,” he says. “Sometimes the research doesn’t work. Sometimes it comes out negative. And that’s OK. It’s OK if students are not getting the answer that they’re expecting to get at the end. Use that as a learning experience because that’s really what research is.”