Undergraduate Internship Program

In 2002, the Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) education program (now run by ISEE) developed a program aimed at advancing college students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The program is intentionally designed to support students from a broad range of backgrounds, including those that have had less access and opportunity to experiences that make students more likely to be successful in STEM. The program includes extensive recruiting to achieve cohorts of students reflective of the population, a one-week inquiry-intensive course to prepare students for the STEM workplace, a 7-8 week mentored project in a STEM environment (academic, industry, or observatory), and an integrated communication course. Many elements of the program have been developed directly from the ISEE Professional Development Program and ISEE’s research and development projects (see below).

The program has been implemented in three different settings, including more than ten years in Hawaii, as the Akamai Internship Program. More than 300 students have been through the program, and more than 90% have been located to learn about their educational and careers status. Participants have persisted in STEM at a rate of 81%. Analyses of data collected over more than a decade, combined with a two-year theory-driven study of the program, not only document the outcomes, but point to the important role that curriculum, student projects, and interactions with instructors or mentors have on students’ persistence in STEM. These findings contribute to the growing body of evidence linking persistence, and differences in persistence rates across different genders and ethnicities, with curriculum, instruction and mentoring practices.

  • The program has recruited participants from diverse backgrounds: 52% from underrepresented minority groups, 41% women, and 38% community college students. Of the students in the Akamai (Hawaii-based) program, 23% are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

  • Because the program is aimed at retention, and high attrition rates in the early years of college, the program has included 57% of its participants after their freshman or sophomore year.

  • 81% (+/- 6%) of participants persisted in STEM three years after entering the program, either entering the STEM workforce or enrolling in a STEM program of study.

  • Persistence for all ethnicities and genders is statistically the same. While differences in persistence are typically seen in college persistence rates, these differences are not seen for alumni of our program.

Elements of the program model:

As indicated above, the program model was developed through the NSF Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO).  The model is aimed at advancing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) college students into STEM careers, and was implemented in three programs, including the Akamai Internship Program. This model was designed to engage students in research/engineering projects early in their college education, and include students from a broad range of backgrounds, including students from community colleges. The programs had a specific goal to increase participation from groups underrepresented in STEM, and in particular in the physical sciences, engineering, and computing fields relevant to the CfAO, which are some of the least diverse STEM fields.

The program model was designed strategically to bolster the traditional research experience format that often employs a “sink or swim” approach, in which a student’s background may have a significant influence on their chances of success, and may (unintentionally) make it more difficult for some students to succeed. A unique aspect of the CfAO internship model is a 5-day “short course” that provides intensive preparation for the technical workplace. Taught by graduate students and postdocs trained in the Professional Development Program (PDP), the Short Course uses inquiry learning to enhance students’ research, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration skills. Throughout the short course, students gain extensive practice in working on teams to conduct investigations, solve problems, and communicate findings. The second innovative component in the model is a communication course, which is integrated throughout the program, and goes far beyond communication skills. The communication course begins in the short course and then continues through weekly meetings and assignments for the remainder of the program, requiring that students describe their projects in a range of formats and to different audiences. Students gain practice with informal communication, explaining results, and effectively interacting with mentors, and over the course of the program produce an abstract, oral presentation, poster presentation, resume, and personal statement.

A more recent addition to the program has been the integration of new tools and activities to support interns in understanding and communicating their project: the Solution Articulation Framework (SAF). The SAF evolved from needs identified to better support students, mentors and the program’s professional staff, and new tools using this framework have been integrated into the program as well as ISEE’s new Mentor Program.

Importance of Program Outcomes:

Although there is no direct control or comparison group, the participants in the program have a rate of retention in STEM that is far above many nationally reported rates. Fewer than 40% of those intending to pursue a STEM degree in college actually earn a STEM degree.[i] For some groups retention rates are as low as 20%. A particularly notable outcome from the internship program is that there is not any significant difference between the various ethnic or gender groups, in terms of retention in STEM. These outcomes suggest that with adequate support (such as our internship program), students from all ethnicities and genders can be retained in STEM, and that differences in retention rates may have more to do with curriculum, instruction and mentoring practices.

The successful outcomes of the program have led us to identify aspects of the program that may be generalizable. For example, there may be aspects of the program that others could use, or an organization may want to implement the model in their own context and will need to make informed decisions as revisions are needed. An additional value in identifying what is working is that the mentoring community can incorporate strategies and tools to make projects more productive without necessarily having the full structure of the internship program (which is very resource intensive). More on our ongoing work in this area is described in our Mentoring Productive Projects page.

Reports and publications about program

Summary of program and outcomes through 2002-2009 (CfAO funded period):  “CfAO Internship Outcomes 2010”

Ball, T., 2009. Explaining as Participation: A multi-level analysis of learning environments designed to support scientific argumentation. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Ball, T., & Hunter, L. Using Inquiry to Develop Reasoning Skills and to Prepare Students to Take Initiative in a Research Setting: Practical Implications from Research. Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 436, Learning from Inquiry in Practice, eds. L. Hunter & A. J. Metevier (San Francisco, CA: ASP). 

Ball, T. & Hunter, L. (in press) Supporting Access to Science and Engineering Through Scientific Argumentation. In G. Wells & A. Edwards (Eds.) Pedagogy in Higher Education: A Cultural Historical Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Montgomery, R., Harrington, D., Sonnett, S., Pitts, M., Mostafanezhad, I., Foley, M., and Hunter, L. The Design and Implementation of the Akamai Maui Short Course. Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 436, Learning from Inquiry in Practice, eds. L. Hunter & A. J. Metevier (San Francisco, CA: ASP).

[i] “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” report at http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/pcast/docsreports.