Learning is a two-way street

September 09, 2013

By Liz Goehring

Internship programs are all about learning – learning your discipline; learning about work environments and careers; about time management and teamwork; about yourself. I’m an educator so from my vantage point, interning is pretty high on my priority list. Maybe that’s why Stephanie Spetter, NEON’s Administrative Services Manager, stopped me in the hallway one day to comment, “You really enjoy setting up the new internship program, don’t you?!”

Yeah, I guess I do.

This year, as NEON introduced one of its early education offerings – the undergraduate internship program – those of us involved learned a great deal. Of course, this was by design! Our pilot program was intentionally set up to inform us how best to offer undergraduate internships to achieve our goals, which include helping prepare future STEM professionals and broadening participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering. From the beginning, we consulted Rebecca Haacker-Santos, Director of the well-known and very successful SOARS program, to identify elements that would be crucial in helping us meet our goals. We also contracted CU-Boulder’s Dr. Bill Penuel and his graduate student Erik Dutilly to formally evaluate our pilot. Erik worked almost side-by-side with the interns throughout the summer, sitting in on meetings and taking notes on everything. He affectionately became known as “the shadow.” And of course, our first cohort of interns (Abby, Nicole, Adrienne and Will) learned from day one that they were our guinea pigs. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to mind.

I think the primary reason our interns were okay with being guinea pigs was that each of them was hungry for real-world work experience – just what we promised to provide. For some students, internships are the first opportunity they have to apply what they’ve learned in their academics to an actual problem or research question. Without the guidance of lectures, lab instruction, or teaching assistants, interns have to use their own knowledge and critical thinking skills to solve the problems their projects present. Internships offer real-world challenges where academic knowledge is put to the test. In education parlance, this is authentic learning. And there was a good bit of this at NEON this summer.

Finding that optimal learning zone can be tricky!

That being said, internships can be unsettling, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the summer started, Rebecca shared this graphic with me (right) showing that optimal learning occurs when students move out of their comfort zone, in this case out of the classroom where one is typically told (er… I mean taught) what to do. A few of our interns told us how intimidating it was at first to have so much freedom in their projects, but after digging in, they figured things out and felt all the more satisfied with their products.

Of course, they were not completely on their own. They had mentors who nudged them to think of themselves not as students but work colleagues. Mentoring is about helping the intern find his/her own voice, with a little coaching along the way. It was tremendously gratifying to find so many NEON employees willing to be mentors, either helping with projects, career advice, or simply to navigate life in Boulder, all on top of demanding daily work schedules. Thanks, NEON Mentors!

Adrienne shares a laugh with her project mentor, Charlotte Roehm.

Internships are valuable to everyone participating, and on a personal note, I feel I learned as much from our interns as they learned from us. Each one taught me something or helped me remember something I had forgotten somewhere along the way.

Nicole, who worked steadily to identify intriguing patterns in NEON prototype data while also squeezing in hikes and camping trips every weekend, reminded me of the importance of balancing hard work with relaxation and high adventure.

Will’s enthusiasm for engineering coupled with his contrarian humor kept me smiling most days – heck, he kept most of us smiling! His dedication to career, family and country were also inspiring.

Adrienne, with her passion for finding her right path and her courage to learn so many new things, reminded me of my own circuitous career journey and of how important it is to stay true to your interests.

And Abby, with her amazing abilities to network and navigate her way gracefully through most situations, teaches me that this next generation can and will do anything they set their minds to do.

Thanks, you guys!

Will proudly displays his first designed part, hot off the 3D printer!

Given the overall success of our interns’ projects and poster presentations, I’m guessing Erik’s formal evaluation will highlight the usefulness of program components like the scientific communications trainings, career exploration support, and of course mentoring. I’m sure we’ll also learn what things need to be tweaked or added. For example, summer internships go by incredibly fast and everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of deliverables. We’ll need a better way to communicate expectations and milestones to all parties. We’ll also want to find ways to get the word out more widely and are eager to work more closely with ESA’s SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability) program to help us. The good news is that we have a process in place to learn what can make our internship program top notch.

With the summer now over, each intern now back at their home institution, and the evaluation report on its way, I am already getting excited for next year. Imagine, in 2014 we’ll have six interns! But as Will liked to remind me, “We’re setting the bar high for all those to come!”

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