Student internships at DOE labs

A student works alongside a mentor at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Some internships are currently remote because of the pandemic. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science)

When Jonathan Lamb asks his calculus students at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, about career goals, the response he hears most often is “engineer.”

Students often are vague about the types of engineering careers available, or what is required to achieve them, Lamb said. But they know engineering jobs are available, especially at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, about a 15-minute drive from campus.

For Lamb and other faculty at Pellissippi State, the campus’s proximity to the nation’s largest multi-program science and energy research lab is a stroke of fortune.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science offers dozens of high-quality, good-paying internships for community college students at 16 labs around the nation, and Pellissippi isn’t about to squander the opportunity. Eight of its students are participating in the Community College Internships (CCI) program this summer.

“Over the years, I’ve had many students get internships with them,” said Lamb, who has taught math at Pellissippi since 1999. “All of them talk about what a wonderful opportunity it is.”

Providing a valuable opportunity

Finding internships can be difficult for community college students, who often juggle jobs, studies and family responsibilities. Unpaid internships don’t work for this group. Good-paying internships often are offered only to juniors and seniors at four-years schools, as companies seek to line up employees after graduation.

Since 1998, the DOE’s Office of Science has looked to community colleges as an integral link in its workforce development pipeline, which begins in middle and high schools with a National Science Bowl and extends to research opportunities through graduate school.

Ninety community college students are participating this summer in the Community College Internships program. Most internships are 10 weeks, but some are extended to 16 weeks for students who can’t work full-time hours. Interns receive $600 a week, plus housing and travel expenses.

Karen Skubal, a program manager who leads workforce development programs for the Office of Science, said community college internships typically focus on technical skills and problem solving, such as training on a complex piece of equipment, or even developing new equipment.

Interns also take part in professional development opportunities like brown bag seminars, technical writing training and networking with scientists.

“It’s a good introduction to the workplace in general, but also the workplace that is specific to the labs,” Skubal said.

Ping Ge, who oversees the workforce programs, said the Office of Science is mindful not to confine community college students to purely technical roles. CCI interns enjoy the same networking and professional development opportunities as students in four-year schools.

“I see our community college program as a pathway for students to further their educational and career goals,” Ge said.

A project-based virtual experience

Brothers Austin and Matthew Allison see it the same way. The fraternal twins just finished up their associate degrees in electrical engineering technology at Pellissippi State. Now they’re in the middle of internships at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

They live about 45 minutes from the lab, but they’re not making the drive right now. Most Office of Science internships are virtual this summer because of the pandemic.

“Obviously it would be better to be in person, but it’s still a great opportunity,” Austin Allison said.

Twin brothers Matthew (left) and Austin Allison are interning at Oak Ridge National Laboratory this summer. (Credit: Pellissippi State Community College)

He and his brother work on the same project, which combines robotics and additive manufacturing and seeks to improve a binding agent process used in 3D printing. They meet remotely with a mentor, Amy Elliott, once or twice a week, and spend the remainder of their work time researching at home.

The brothers plan to major in electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee in the fall. Matthew Allison said his internship had also sparked an interest in mechanical engineering.

“I’m really enjoying that field,” he said. “Personally, I wouldn’t mind working at ORNL after I get my degree.”

Building confidence

Lamb sees many students complete the CCI program with a greater sense of career possibilities.

“They have more confidence,” he said. “The light goes on. It’s a really good motivating factor for my other students.”

Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, has six students participating in Department of Science internships this summer. Four are at Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory in nearby Batavia, Illinois.

Brenda Escobedo, a graduate of Moraine Valley Community College, gained confidence through an internship at Argonne National Laboratory. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science)

“They come back as different people, in a positive way,” said Panos Hadjimitsos, the assistant dean of science, business and computer technology at Moraine Valley. “Even though it’s only 10 weeks, it increases the level of confidence in these students.”

Brenda Escobedo, a Moraine Valley graduate who completed an internship at the Argonne National Laboratory in 2018, described in an interview for the Office of Science how that works.

“The first time I experienced success in my internship at Argonne was when I learned to solder,” said Escobedo, who went on to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It made me feel independent in my work.”

She added, “My time at Argonne was also the first time I had been alone and experienced some freedom. I lived on campus during the summer and made a lot of long-lasting relationships with peers and scientists.”

Job and transfer prospects

The Office of Science internships are popular with students in Moraine Valley’s Engineering Pathways program. But Hadjimitsos said students don’t have to be on a baccalaureate track to take advantage of the opportunities. An associate degree student landed an internship in industrial maintenance last year at the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, and leveraged it into a full-time job.

Many community college interns go on to four-year universities, Skubal said. But some become so skilled at their projects they are offered jobs immediately.

“We’ve got examples of students not even completing their internships and getting hired at a national lab,” she said.

All CCI interns are connected with a mentor scientist or engineer. The relationships formed during 10-week internships can last for years.

“The national lab scientists and engineers love their jobs,” Skubal said. “They get a lot of energy and satisfaction from teaching the next generation. There’s something unique about teaching open minds, students eager to learn something new.”

The Department of Energy regards community colleges as essential to building a generation of future scientists, engineers and support staff, Ge said.

“The new blood and the more diverse representation in the workforce are urgently needed,” she said. “That makes programs like the community college internships all the more important.”

About the Author

Barbara Shelly
is a higher education writer in Kansas City, Missouri.