How a Virtual Internship Model Promotes Experiential STEM Learning

Kemi Jona & Nikki James, Northeastern University (IUSE Award #1725941)

Since 2017, the research team at Northeastern University has been developing a virtual internship and team project model. The original focus of these efforts was to broaden participation in experiential learning for non-traditional and underrepresented students. When COVID-19 caused the rapid transition to remote work and learning, the team realized that the virtual internship model they had been developing could be leveraged to address obstacles to experiential learning presented by the pandemic.

Increasing Experiential Learning Opportunities via Virtual Internships

At the beginning of the pandemic, the research team rapidly adapted their implementation process and opened access to the virtual internship and team projects model as an alternative or replacement to decreasing experiential learning opportunities. The research team focused on training new faculty and providing platforms for universities and community colleges to share their practice as they implemented the model. As a result, 16 institutions serving undergraduate STEM students are at various phases of implementing and scaling the use of virtual internships and virtual team projects to provide much needed experiential learning and real-world projects for their students.

Norene Kemp, Dept. Head Programing & Info. Sciences, Wake Community College, "I was introduced to the Virtual Internships Program on Practera in my first weeks as the Dept. Head of Programming and Information Sciences at Wake Technical Community College. I knew immediately that it needed to be implemented in our Computer Programming and Development and Data Science Programming and Support Services Capstone courses. Here we are 2 semesters later piloting. One academic year later, the plan is to implement for a now two-semester Capstone Course for both curriculums. I am thrilled with the hard work put in by everyone from the Virtual Internship Team, to the Instructor, and the Industry Partner to making this happen. I am so excited to be able to bring real world projects and expert feedback to my students. The experience the students get to take away is far better now than in the past. I'm proud to see the collaboration between the team members, and the Industry Partner, and look forward to many more semesters of great collaboration and integration into our Learning Management System."


Implications Beyond the Pandemic

The increased use of the model over the past year has afforded the research team the opportunity to better understand implementation challenges, how to maintain the efficacy of the design, and examine which specific mechanics of the model are driving the outcomes.

Key takeaways from implementing virtual/remote internships:

  • An internship or capstone project is a complex activity network that is labor intensive for teachers and coordinators to implement and support. Technology (i.e., machine learning and real time learning analytics), if implemented intentionally, can decrease the complexity and labor intensity for the coordinator or teacher, enabling them to support more students and teams without decreasing the quality of the experience for individual students.
  • There are elements of value that are lost when transitioning to remote and virtual experiential learning, but there is also value to gain. For example, data breadcrumbs can provide real-time insight into what is happening in each industry partner/student collaboration. Additionally, virtual/remote opportunities can open access to careers and opportunities for students regardless of their geographic location, access to transport, or ability to travel.

Our findings suggest that the learner’s degree of agency while participating in Virtual Internship (that is, the extent to which a learner has agency over the project and the learning they extract from it) is significantly impacted by their teachers’ perspective and subsequent moves in taking up this innovation.

Read more from the project’s poster at the International Society of the Learning Sciences Conference 2021

Helpful practices that can be applied by other institutions include:

  1. Creating an open-source library of various STEM projects that give students project options and ideas that are useful for a variety of businesses and achievable for students in an internship.
  2. Structuring virtual internship and team project designs that provide students with step-by-step guides for project completion and skill development.
  3. Establishing strong feedback loops, using technology, from the industry partner or internship host.
  4. Implementing just-in-time learning content that helps the intern or project team connect the dots between what they have learned in the classroom to how they can apply it to their industry project.
  5. Crafting a learning analytics dashboard that provides real-time insights for the faculty or internship coordinator so they can effectively support students and industry partners when needed.
  6. Constructing a professional development course designed to support educators and coordinators in the set-up, implementation, and pilot of a virtual internship or virtual team project.

Katie Sievers, Customer Success Manager, Credly, "I considered my role as an industry partner for a Javascript programming course to be a huge privilege - what a gift to get to work with talented students and to share their professor's valuable class time. I was blown away by the thought the students put into their projects, and the deliverables provided valuable insights into "new user" perspectives of our product. It was fun to share the presentations with my team and celebrate the results of the students' hard work - I felt like a proud mom! I found the half-hour or so per week that I spent chatting with students to be an energizing and gratifying addition to my usual responsibilities, especially because it was a great opportunity for me to hone the mentorship skills that I hope to use throughout my career. I'm proud to have played a role (however small) in the students' growth and hope to have the chance to work with another class soon!

Aaron Selby, Director of Operations, USNC-Tech, "USNC-Tech's experience with the InternSHIFT program at OSU has been nothing short of amazing. From the initial discussions we knew this was going to be a good program, and it continues to deliver. We worked with OSU to find the very best intern to hit the ground running on our project. Our intern, Jacob, took the task we gave him and is not only taking steps towards solving those problems but he has gone beyond to deliver. He is doing a great job with the technical tasks and with integrating with our team. The beauty of the InternSHIFT program is we were able to give a problem to a highly qualified student, and he took the problem statement and ran with it."